Sally Kern introduced House Bill 1598 to the Oklahoma state legislature in January. The bill would legitimize conversion therapy, an umbrella term for treatments and therapies that aim to change the sexual orientation of those undergoing it. One of the bill’s biggest opponents is Toby Jenkins.
Today, many know Toby Jenkins as the Executive Director of Oklahomans for Equality, a Tulsa-based organization that advocates for LGBT rights in the state of Oklahoma.
But before Jenkins was confronting conversion therapy advocates in the Oklahoma legislature, he spent sixteen years trying to reverse his own attraction to the same sex.
Toby grew up devoutly Christian, but his attraction to other men did not gel with the messages he learned in church. So, in 1979, at the age of nineteen, Toby went to his first appointment with a Christian counselor, seeking what is now called conversion therapy.
“I would drive three or four hours away,” he said, “to another city so that they didn’t know who I was, and talked to these Christian therapists about what I was struggling with.”
The counselor’s advice was to seek out a marriage. The idea was, if Toby led a heterosexual life he would begin to feel heterosexual feelings.
“I spent most of my adult life in a heterosexual marriage, living a very disciplined, torturous, painful life,” said Jenkins. “I would punish myself, and fast for days. The self hatred and the disappointment was very profound.”
This is, as Jenkins sees it, the idea at the heart of conversion therapy. The programs aim to fit homosexuals into the ideal heterosexual Christian mold, even if this molding results in homosexuals’ self-punishment.
“I payed almost $350 to go to a two-day conference that was supposed to address ‘sexual brokenness’ and there was a three hour session, ‘Healing the Broken Male.’ They took us out in a field, and they had us wear flannel and combat boots and rough jeans and they had us toss a football around for three hours.”
The irony of this program was that Toby was already quite masculine. He was athletic as a young man and a football scholarship put him through college. When changing his behavior didn’t work, he tried more drastic measures. He entered the priesthood, believing that serving Christ more fully would free him of his homosexuality. When that didn’t work, he decided to come out to some of his fellow clergymen.
“It felt incredibly liberating to finally tell everybody who I was,” Toby later remembered. “And then two or three other men broke down and confessed that they had the same issue. And then that became the next step in my delusion.”
Toby’s coming out wasn’t an affirmation of his sexual identity. Rather, it became the beginning of a public struggle to change his sexuality. Because he was honest about it, and because he had never pursued a sexual relationship with another man, Toby became the poster-boy for the ex-gay movement in the 90s. His church sent him to get ‘fixed’ by undergoing some of the more extreme forms of therapy.
He underwent hypnosis, extended periods of fasting and even aversion therapy. None of it stuck. Despite encouragement to do so from his fellow ministers, he never claimed to be free from homosexual desires. Doing so would have been a lie.
In 1995, after sixteen years of trying to change himself, Toby accepted that he was a gay man. After some searching, he found the number of the Equality Center and began attending support groups. Toby, who still prays, goes to church and reads his Bible, is at peace with his sexuality.
Stephen Black, the Executive Director of First Stone Ministries, a group dedicated to ministering to the “sexually broken,” has a lot in common with Toby Jenkins. Both grew up in religious households and experienced attraction to the same sex. Stephen, however, chose to live as an openly gay man for many years before he entered the fold of conservative Christianity. One night, while visiting some Christian friends, he had an intense conversion experience.
“The Lord said to me, ‘If you do not accept me tonight, you will die,’” wrote Black in his testimonial on First Stone’s website. “My heart began to pound and pound. I knew I had to know Jesus like these people.”
Later that night, Stephen asked God whether homosexuality was compatible with a Christian lifestyle. He opened his Bible and found Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female, it is an abomination.”
For Stephen, this was all the proof he needed. He left his same-sex partner. Three years later he married a woman, with whom he has three children.
Homosexualtiy, according to Stephen, results from demonic influence and childhood traumas on the human psyche. He wrote of his childhood: “I had given Satan ground in my life. All the voices I had been hearing were demons. These voices may seem like our own thoughts. The voices seem to be you talking to yourself.” Only through Jesus, believes Stephen, can homosexuality be conquered.
Toby Jenkins, mainstream psychology, and many Christian denominations disagree with this assessment.
Conversion therapy itself has always been a point of contention in psychology. Freud believed it was a waste of time, while other thinkers maintained that it could be successful. Recently, however, psychologists have come out against conversion therapy.
In a publication about human sexuality, the American Psychological Association wrote: “Such efforts (to change one’s sexuality) have serious potential to harm young people because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”
Toby concurs. Of Stephen Black and other conversion therapy advocates, he said, “They had not changed their sexual orientation, they’ve changed their sexual behavior. And that’s the most troubling part about it. It’s smoke and mirrors, it’s fraud, it’s snake oil.”
Stephen Black testified in the Oklahoma State legislature that he had been cured of his homosexuality. Toby Jenkins was there too, and he confronted Black on his way out. According to a recording Jenkins shared on his Facebook wall, he asked if Black still felt sexual attraction to men, to which Black replied that, “That would be like asking a criminal if they’re ever tempted with committing a crime that they have committed.”
House Bill 1598 seems to have lost momentum in the Oklahoma Legislature. Conversion therapy remains legal but not legitimized by the state government.
At press time, Stephen Black had not yet responded to a request for comment.