Could a high profile preacher in the fundamental mega-churches of Australia ever become an advocate for the GLBTIQ community? Too big a transition, I would have thought, and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be something I would do.
In fact, when I resigned from the ministry in 1991, I viewed myself as such a failure and was so full of self-loathing that I’d planned a brief life as an out gay man. Commit suicide at 50, I’d decided, before you get too old and unattractive. The worst possible scenario would be to end up a tragic, lonely, old, gay man. Then everyone from my previous Christian world would be able to say told you so. My initial coming out was not one of empowerment or freedom but a reluctant resignation to the unchangeable fact that I was and always will be a gay man.
Fast forward to 2007, at 56, and recently being voted on the samesame.com.au list of Australia’s 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian Australians, I’m feeling more passionate than ever about what lies ahead of me.
Almost every day seems to bring a new win or an encouraging email from a reader who tells me of their personal and sometimes profound transformation after reading my autobiography. Just last week a well-respected Australian evangelical leader, Rev. Dr Rowland Croucher, wrote a glowing review of my autobiography. Anthony’s book is well-written, a -˜must-read’ for all (adult -“ though some may disagree with that) Christians, especially Christian leaders. It’s confronting, occasionally (appropriately) explicit, irenic, sad, honest, and well-researched. There’s a commendable integrity about his approach. (http://victoriaconcordiacrescit.blogspot.com/2007/11/when-homosexual-christian-leader-comes.html).
In the mid-1960s, when I became aware I was attracted to men, I quickly discovered that, if I acted on those feelings, I would be imprisoned and that homosexuals were treated with a range of therapies including aversion and electric shock treatment. Two non-macho guys in my high school were harassed so much they committed suicide.
The messages were loud and clear. Firstly, don’t tell a soul and, secondly, do everything you can to change. I tried psychiatric treatment, becoming a Christian hoping God would do a miracle, going through ex-gay programs, exorcisms and finally 16 years of marriage.
In 1974 I became an evangelist and was ordained with the Assemblies of God. My ministry flourished and was soon a well-known name in Christian circles. Although I was preaching weekly to congregations of up to 5,000, behind the scenes I struggled to be the person I wasn’t. A heterosexual.
When I fell in love with a man at the age of 40 I was forced to admit that nothing had changed and I faced the toughest decision of my life: be true to myself, which would result in losing everything I held dear, or continue to live a lie.
The humiliation of disclosure and confession to a congregation of 800 was a trauma I would not wish of my worst enemy. The ministry I’d spent years building, my reputation, my friends and social network and, probably the most important, my sense of purpose in life, were all gone. It took me another six years to come to terms with the trauma and find personal resolution with those who betrayed me, my sexuality and finally my faith (now redefined).
It was in 1999 I had a strong sense that I must tell my story and that it would assist people through the maze of reconciling the perceived conflict between their faith and their sexuality. So I began to write, painfully digging up the memories I’d buried.
Finally, in 2004, A Life Of Unlearning -“ Coming Out To The Church, One Man’s Struggle hit the shelves and I thought I’d done my job. A conversation with the Hon. Justice Michael Kirby and the hundreds of emails from readers commencing with the words your story is my story made me realise that it was not the end but a new beginning and I would devote much of my life to bringing understanding to individuals and denominations about homosexuality.
I’d never considered myself a writer but readers’ emails were incredibly encouraging, so once the first edition sold out, I rewrote the entire story from page one. This time I was able to include the five years of research I’d been doing on sexual orientation, ex-gay ministries and looking at the few Bible verses on homosexuality from a cultural, linguistic and historical perspective. Up until that point, like most Christians, I didn’t realise that the word homosexual didn’t even appear in an English translation of the Bible until 1946.
The new edition, A Life Of Unlearning -“A Journey To Find The Truth, in many ways is a totally new book. It takes the reader deeper into understanding the journey any gay or straight person must travel in order to be true to themselves.
During my time as a high profile preacher I had lots of wonderful experiences but I would have to say that I am now living the most fulfilling life I’ve ever known. It’s a life of openness and authenticity. Making a difference in this world is important to me. Creating Freedom 2 b[e] (www.freedom2b.org) with our new patrons, the Hon. Justice Michael Kirby and Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon, is a part of that. In some respects, I’ve become an ambassador of the GLBTIQ community I love, and I work to break down the stereotypes and educate churches and Christian leaders about sexual orientation.
Had I known all that was available to me as an openly gay man I certainly would have come out earlier. But such is our journey in life, hindsight is always more powerful than foresight. With my autobiography recently released on amazon.com, speaking invitations coming from the US and the UK and even interest in a film version of my story, things are looking pretty exciting.
Anthony Venn-Brown now works as a professional life coach and also assists gay, lesbian and bisexual clients with their specific issues. See www.anthonyvennbrown.com.