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Reflections in the Silver Cup

DOUG HOUCK: A MAN WITH AN "EX-GAY" PAST

Doug after the Seattle to Portland Bike Classic--204 miles in 2 days--part of his new abundant life!
I met Doug Houck this fall through a mutual friend online, when he started reading The Silver Cup in its serialized form. Perhaps because we both grew up gay in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), which means we have a huge common background, he became one of my most devoted readers, frequently offering comments. The more he shared of his own story, the more I knew I wanted to interview him, so a couple of weeks ago, we had a two-hour phone conversation and then some follow-ups by e-mail.

My first question for Doug was, “How did you experience your faith as a child?”

“I took my faith pretty seriously, but I believe that everybody I knew was doing the same thing. We were all going to church twice on Sunday. I went to Sunday school, Calvinist Cadets, and Young People’s Society. I became a leader in those groups, won an award in Cadets, was the president of Young People’s Society, and I went to El Paso on SWIM [Summer Workshop in Missions] in 1973. I would talk to my Catholic neighbors and tell them they were going to hell because they were Roman Catholic and not CRC. Naiveté.”

He laughed and went on to catalog all the ways he took his faith seriously. “I went to Christian school, and I had a superior attitude about Christian education. I would never have wanted to go to public school. I was probably an arrogant bastard. I laugh about it now, but throughout my childhood, in all those things I was seriously pursuing God. My career goals were to be a missionary or minister in the CRC. That pursuit of God was my pursuit of God as I understood him in the CRC system that I was being raised in. In Grand Rapids at that time no other versions of Christianity were even evident to me.”

“You touched a little on your pursuit of God in adolescence. Can you say some more about that?”

“In many ways it was the same, although it was in adolescence that I had a growing awareness of my sexual interest in boys, in my peers. That caused guilt. When I applied for SWIM, I made a promise to God that I would stop masturbating if he would send me on SWIM. In my mind masturbation and homosexuality were one and the same thing. I couldn’t make a distinction between them. It never occurred to me that straight men masturbated. That idea was beyond comprehension. I had a pretty poor understanding of sexuality at that age.

“It was on my SWIM experience that I ended up sharing my bed with my teammate (those were the arrangements), and I found myself trying to grope him during the night. He did not appreciate it. That was the first time I was confronted with the fact that my sexual interests were outside my control. I eventually went to the pastor’s daughter and confessed what had happened and she facilitated my talking to her mother about the situation. I wasn’t expelled from the team, but they opened the door for me to talk to my pastor back home.”

A crucial piece of information seemed missing, so I asked, “Did your roommate go to anybody about what had happened?”

I was surprised when Doug said, “I have no idea. I don’t know how he dealt with it, other than to let me know he didn’t like it. It’s long enough ago that I don’t remember the details.”

I wanted to know how the team leaders responded.

“It was pretty positive for 1973. None of them had any education in dealing with sexuality, and I found out later that I was the first gay person to talk to the pastor’s wife about those issues. She had some counseling background and that enabled her to react professionally. She took things calmly.

“Back at home, my pastor didn’t know why I was coming to see him until I told him what had happened on SWIM. He got nervous and asked if my behavior was anything like smoking. I didn’t know because I didn’t smoke.” Doug gave a brief laugh, but it wasn’t as though he thought what the pastor said was funny.

I asked, “How would you say your spirituality and sexuality were related at that time?”

“On the outside people saw someone who was highly involved in the trappings of living a Christian life. On the inside I was dealing with the guilt of my sexual orientation, which was manifest predominantly through masturbation and secondarily through some same-sex contact with peers.”

“So pretty split?”

“Yeah it was kind of schizophrenic. That was in 1973 when Synod [the church’s international governing body] put out Report Number 42. I got my hands on it and learned that they made a distinction between behavior and orientation. I felt some relief because the onus was on me just to control my behavior.

"For the next five years, I did control my behavior. But I met a guy at college and fell deeply in love with him. It was a very intense relationship. He was straight, definitely straight, and the relationship operated on the basis of my need to know a straight person with whom I could talk about my sexual struggle—someone who would pray with me. It was very emotional.”

Later on, part of Doug’s relationship with Dave, would develop into Exodus International’s (an “ex-gay” consortium of ministries, which has since closed) concept of emotional dependency. Doug and a woman member of Exodus developed the concept and presented it at Exodus conferences.

I asked what seemed to be a crucial question. “Did you tell Dave you were in love with him?” Doug said he didn’t think so. “It wouldn’t have been acceptable. I couldn’t use that language. I don’t remember doing that.” As we talked, I noticed other apparent blank spots in Doug’s memory, which could be accounted for by the time that has lapsed or possibly because some things were too painful to remember.

Doug went on. “I was living in this bizarre conflict of being technically within the bounds of the CRC guidelines because I was gay but not living as gay. At the end of those five years I attempted suicide. My counselor at Calvin drove me to the hospital, and Dave dealt with my parents.”

“What did Dave tell your parents?”

“Whatever he told them, I was forced to call them and tell them I was in the hospital and the reason was that I was gay. It was the last day of school, and I was supposed to be moving out of the dorm. Dave ended up taking my car and belongings back to my parents’ house. My dad brought him back to campus, but I don’t know much else about what happened. It was the day before graduation, the day before my dad’s fiftieth birthday, and one month before I was supposed to be married.”

“What?” Up to this point, Doug had said nothing about relationships with women.

“Ohhh-kaay!” He drew out the syllables and laughed.

“I did not see that coming.”

We were both laughing by then. In my case it was in recognition of how hard many LGBTQ people, especially coming from faith communities, try to meet social expectations, often to their own pain and the pain of others. As we tell our stories, those attempts at normalization are often left out or minimized, as Doug had just done, because they are not about our true selves. They seem incidental.

Doug confirmed that. “Oh, yeah. I dated a girl in there somewhere.” He went on, “As the years have passed since my suicide attempt, I think about what should have been going on and wasn’t happening. It’s pretty amazing that I survived that whole mess. We had preparations in place for the wedding. I had no preparations for our life together. I think we’d rented an apartment. I had no plans for work. I was in a fog, and only years later I began to see through parts of it.”

“Did you get married?”

“Nope. The wedding was called off.”

“How was that? How did people react, and how was it for you?”

“I was in Pine Rest [one of the CRC’s mental hospitals] for six weeks. That isolation kept me oblivious as to how others were reacting. Toward end of my hospitalization, they let me out to start getting back into society. My fiancé and I went to Grand Haven and ran into a high school classmate. She asked me what I was doing. I wasn’t going to tell her about the hospitalization, so I said I was working at Pine Rest. She said I’d better watch out or I’d end up in the nuthouse. That’s when I said that I was a patient.” Doug had actually been working at Pine Rest previously, but his employment had been suspended. He added, “My parents have said that they felt like they had to walk on eggshells around me at the time.”

Doug has four sisters and a brother, all younger than he. I asked if they knew about what was going on at the time.

“I don’t think so.”

When he was discharged from the hospital, Doug went back to a restaurant job he’d held during high school. “That got me sort of stabilized, and I started establishing a social network outside of college. A little bit of one, anyway. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. The only thing that made sense at that time was to leave Grand Rapids and try to find myself away from that community. I made a random decision to move to Seattle. I had no connections here, had never been here.

"A coworker was moving to Seattle, so we decided to move out here, and that’s what we did. He arrived a couple of weeks before me, and I crashed where he was crashing. We were put in a situation where we had to sleep together. I was amazed because I fell asleep and didn’t try making any sexual advances. He was the type I would have loved to make advances to. The fact that I didn’t became my stake in the ground that I had been freed from my homosexuality.

“Two or three months after arriving in Seattle, I learned about Lifeline, one of the ex-gay ministries, and that became my introduction to Exodus International. Their annual conference was held in Seattle in June of 1980, and I took a job with Lifeline. My first week of full-time employment was going to the Exodus conference and meeting all these people I’d been reading about who’d been freed from homosexuality. That was wonderful because here were people who seemed to have a similar desire to serve God, understood homosexuality as sin, understood its dynamics, and were passionate about helping others be freed from being gay. Their expression of Christianity was charismatic, or at least my understanding of charismatic at that time. I often felt my Reformed understanding of Christianity was not up to par. I had a theological experience of Christianity and didn’t experience God in the same way as charismatics do—speaking in tongues, being slain in the spirit, singing praise songs. I did like The Heidelberg Catechism and theology.” He laughed.

“The first Exodus conference I went to, the keynote speaker was Art Katz. His theme was ‘killing your pig.’ I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. There were people there who were in religious torment. One guy with shoulder-length hair was so convicted that his hair was an expression of femininity that he cut his own hair off with a fingernail clipper. That was him killing his pig. My experience was just that I didn’t get it. Nevertheless, here I had the experience of being accepted as an ex-gay man. Years later we all learned that we were still gay. But there was acceptance for me being who I am. The biggest conflict I have with Exodus is that it gave me acceptance in a convoluted way of understanding my sexuality and Christianity.

“I don’t have a very clear understanding of my time in Exodus. From my perspective today, I can’t vilify Exodus. I don’t hate that organization like many other people I know that experienced a lot of damage from it. The things I took from it gave me a certain acceptance, and in the long run it kept me sane and from going suicidal.

“After the first year, I became very involved, and in subsequent years, my involvement on the local level was positive, energizing. In ‘81 I established Metanoia [from the Greek, meaning repentance] Ministries. I was leading small groups, doing one-to-one counseling, and writing a newsletter. I was invited to do public speaking at conferences, had friends in Exodus with good, healthy personal relationships. The theology that came out of the conferences was so different from Reformed theology.

“All this time, I was aware of my homosexual impulses. Whatever flavor of the year was on healing gayness, I was excited about it. But it didn’t seem to stick, and my colleagues seemed to be totally set free. For example, Leanne Payne in ’82 came on the scene with Inner Healing. She had a very vivid imagination and in her prayers she was always seeing Christ doing this or that, always being aware of his presence. There was a lot of emphasis on the atonement. Andy Comiskey developed the Living Waters program, a very systematized prayer therapy focused on being freed from homosexuality. In ’83 Colin Cook offered a program called Homosexuals Anonymous like the Twelve Steps, only with fourteen steps. He was a Seventh Day Adventist and a phenomenal teacher of the book of Romans. The sixth step was, ‘We learned to claim our true reality that as humankind, we are part of God's heterosexual creation and that God calls us to rediscover that identity in Him through Jesus Christ, as our faith perceives Him.’ I did seminars on that. Then there was Elizabeth Moberly with her Reparative Therapy. I went to England to meet her and invited her to the US to do conferences for us in Seattle, Chicago, and Boston. I wrote my master’s thesis on her work and really attached myself to her theory. After I brought her to the US, she was invited to speak at Exodus conferences for the next four years.”

Although I was somewhat familiar with Exodus International, I had avoided knowing its details to a large extent, and I was somewhat surprised at the tremendous number of methods LGBTQ Christians had invented and tried, in order to rid themselves of who they were. It occurred to me that attempting to eradicate a person’s homosexuality could actually cause one to be preoccupied with their sexuality to the exclusion of other aspects of their lives. It seemed that this focus had the opposite effect of what was intended. I asked Doug, “How long were you involved in Exodus?”

“Forever. I got involved in ’79 and was essentially fired from Metanoia in ’89. I haven’t talked about my sexual acting out during this time. I hung on until 2000. After Metanoia, I was in Belfast, Ireland with Heart of God Ministries from ’94 to’95, then in Denver from ’96 to 2000 with Where Grace Abounds.”

I backed up a bit. “Sexual acting out?” I asked.

“It was framed as that in Exodus. Approximately every eighteen months I would get sexually involved with someone. Frequently he was a client, so then it was acting out.”

“And that was what precipitated your being fired from Metanoia?”

“Yes.”

“What caused you to leave Exodus?”

There was a long pause. “You know, I was working for Where Grace Abounds as a fundraiser. Two things happened. I got involved with a client, which was probably the most mutual relationship I’ve ever had. A couple of other staff members were supposed to counsel me, but I caught them making out with each other. I had a job evaluation, and my boss lowered my salary. That pissed me off. In 2000 I was making $24,000, and after the evaluation it was going to be lowered from that. That’s what broke me.”

“The salary thing?”

“Yes.” He laughed at the irony. “Exodus was based in Seattle, so I worked at the next summer conference but nothing more after that. I went into no-man’s place. I didn’t want to have anything to do with Exodus. I came back to the CRC, met a woman, and made a last attempt at forming a relationship with a woman.

“At some point I asked myself two questions. ‘Am I attracted to her?’ And I wasn’t sure. The second question was, ‘When I walk into a room, who makes me light up?’ And I knew that it was the men.”

“And?”

“And somebody outed me to the woman I was seeing, which led to the closure of that relationship. I stopped dating. Period. My world began to shrink.” There were long pauses as Doug struggled for words. Finally he said, “I took in a roommate, a CRC PK [Preacher’s Kid], who was studying at UW. He was someone I was quite attracted to, and he lived here for about a year. Otherwise my world was slowly contracting. I wasn’t making friends. I spent all my time with one particular couple—Jeff and Sue. They were very welcoming, but I was beginning to feel it was unhealthy that there was no one else I was interested in hanging with. I was a deacon in the CRC, but I felt on the outskirts, not related to anyone. I was single, so I didn’t participate in family activities.”

“Did you still believe that homosexuality was a sin?”

“The simple answer is yes, but that idea was beginning to unravel from a very unlikely place—my job at the National Park Service (NPS).”

“How so?”

“Working for the NPS, I was confronted with this other version of the American story. That version looked at America’s story through Indian eyes and Japanese internment stories. I began to see US history through a perspective other than that of a white man. Jumping back to church, there was a class on women in church office [at one time a big source of division in the CRC], and I changed my mind on that issue. I knew then that I was on a slippery slope with the homosexuality issue. I knew it, but I couldn’t explain it.

Working at the NPS was the first time I worked in an organization where not everyone around me was a Christian. One co-worker, who identified as a pagan, gave me a gift at a holiday party—a package wrapped in blue paper with the sun, moon, and stars on it. It didn’t look Christmassy at all. So here I was, hanging out with a pagan, with people who went ballistic over George W. Bush. That wasn’t my perspective at that time. I worked with a couple of Jews who complained about having a Christmas tree in the office. Those things made me begin to look at the American story from a different perspective. I read a book that told American History backwards, starting on the West Coast and moving east. I realized that there were stories other than the Northern European white story.

“All of that set the stage for me to begin to approach my sexuality differently. I saw something on Oprah about vision boards. So on the bathroom mirror, I posted John 10:10, where Jesus says, ‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.’ I felt I didn’t have life abundant. I knew if I continued on this path, I would be suicidal again. That’s not a good place to be.

“I started taking an inventory. I asked myself, ‘What have I not done to resolve my homosexuality? I’ve gone through Inner Healing, Living Waters, Homosexuality Anonymous, counseling, Reparative Therapy. I’ve done everything I could think of doing.’

“Then I asked, ‘How are my Exodus colleagues?’ Stories were coming out that the ex-gay anecdotes that had been publically presented were not the reality. I wasn’t sure of anybody who’d made a clean change to heterosexuality. Maybe Frank Worthen. So many other people—I’m thinking of Jeremy Marks in England, who turned his whole ministry around to advocating for LGBTQ people, very much like Wendy Gritter. John Paulk identified himself as gay, John Smid as gay. The whole Exodus leadership has identified as being gay. I knew somebody in Portland who, although he was living heterosexually, told me about the issues he continued to deal with. He’s committed to his heterosexual marriage; whether he’s gay or straight, I can’t say.”

“How was all of this affecting you?”

“It brought me to the point of realizing that I’d been working at this since I was seventeen—for forty years—and I hadn’t changed. The popular definition of insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ I got to point of saying I give up. I can’t do it anymore. I don’t understand it theologically. I could argue both sides of the six clobber passages [some say there are seven Bible verses used to condemn homosexuality]. It all depends on the theologian who’s looking at it. I relied on John 10:10.

“I started counseling with a gay Christian counselor. I went to Evangelicals Concerned, an organization made up of evangelical gays that accept themselves. I joined one of their Bible studies. I went incognito to the first two or three meetings. I was scared because I recognized some former clients there. At the end of one meeting, the leader of the group came up to me and gave me a lecture about the founder of Metanoia Ministries, referring to him as David. He shook a finger in my face, indicting Metanoia, but he had no idea I was the founder.

“I was pretty shook up, but I came back the next week. There was an icebreaker, and the question was, ‘Have you ever gone incognito any place?’ When it was my turn, I said, ‘I came here incognito. My name is Doug Houck. I’m the founder of Metanoia Ministries.’ The room went dead silent. Finally someone spoke up and said, ‘Everyone is welcome here.’ That broke the tension, and I was able to come back to the group for as long as it lasted.

“Those were the acts that started me on a path of self-acceptance. The next thing I remember, my pastor told me about the Room for All [an affirming Reformed Church in America organization] Conference.

I interjected, “Did he know you were gay?”

“Yes, somebody from church had told him. He told me he’d run across some information about the conference. ‘And,’ he said, ‘if you apply before such and such a date, it costs only $100, airfare included.’”

Doug thought that didn’t make any sense, so he checked. It turned out that Room for All had obtained a travel grant. “They paid the airfare for me to go” he said. “I told my pastor at dinner that I was going, and he said, ‘I’m also going.’ His wife spun around and said, ‘You’re going where?’ He said he was going to use the extra money he had from performing weddings. My friend Jeff didn’t want to hear about the conference second-hand, so we all went, along with someone from Ontario that I’d renewed a friendship with. We met Cara [see my December 3 blog post, “Cara Oosterhouse: Grassroots Persistence in the CRC”]. My pastor was very impressed with her story. He kept talking about her tenacity at Neland Avenue CRC. This was the first time I went to a Christian conference that was gay affirming.

“The conference gave me the framework for starting to build a different understanding of theology. Room for All emphasized story and that telling our stories would win people over. I didn’t appreciate it because I didn’t yet understand the power of story. It wasn’t theology.” He chuckled. “Last January I went to the Gay Christian Network conference. There was a pastor there from a Seattle area church that was considering taking an affirming stance. After the church made that move, which was written up in Time Magazine, I went to a worship service there.”

Ryan Meeks, the pastor of Eastlake Community Church, instead of analyzing the Biblical passages that presumably condemn homosexuality, focused on Jesus’ message of inclusivity. Meeks was quoted in the Time article, “I refuse to go to a church where my friends who are gay are excluded from communion or a marriage covenant or the beauty of Christian community. It is a move of integrity for me—the message of Jesus was a message of wide inclusivity.”

I asked Doug if Eastlake was the church he attends now.

“It is. I went through the new members class three to four months into attending, made a decision to join, followed up and resigned my membership from First CRC in Seattle.”

This seemed like the right place to stop with my questions, but I asked Doug if he wanted to add anything.

“I do,” he said, but they’re just tangents, not substance.” Then he exclaimed, “Oh! You need to know this. When I came out three years ago, I weighed 250 pounds. In the next six months I lost sixty pounds and have maintained that weight.” There was a note of satisfaction in his voice.

We covered so much ground in that two-hour conversation that afterwards I realized I needed to ask a couple more questions, which we addressed by e-mail. The first was, “Did you ever doubt your faith, think about leaving it behind, during this arduous process of trying to eradicate who you are?”

Doug wrote back, “I didn't become cynical about the church until this last year. So, if you asked me this question, say six months ago, I would say no, end of response.” Then Doug described several instances of churches being “secretly affirming” or “privately affirming while publicly cool.” He stopped being involved. “That was my first indication that I was disengaged from church.”

He mentioned his family then. “They have not embraced me as out. I’m not welcome in one sister's home. Another sister was recently in Washington State for two months, for the first time in her life. She refused to visit me. More Christian love. I think that as I've been involved with a gay healthy church, I've begun to recognize the effects of spiritual abuse on me. And my tolerance of evangelicalism has plummeted.”

I prefaced my second follow-up question with, “We talked a bit about the idea that the things we go through in life enable us to touch or help others. What do you see now as the Divine purpose in what you went through: a) for yourself and your growth and b) for others?”

Doug wrote back, “I don’t like the question or assumptions behind it. (Please note, that my response is to the question, not you). I suppose I would respond differently depending on the questioner.

“In my evangelical days, I could accept with pride the premise of the question. Then I would have said, ‘My cross has made me pursue God more deeply, more intimately than your cross.’ Or maybe, ‘You don’t have a cross. God loves me more than he loves you.’ My cross gave me a high profile job, forget the politics; I was traveling, around the country, Canada, the world. I was on TV and radio, written about in newspapers. Protestors came to my conferences. People sent me money and wanted my time. Was I a whore? I’m not responding in a very positive way, am I? Occasionally I was told how special I was. The statement was patronizing. I was special but kept on the fringes of the church, and my family.

“But back then it fit my theological grid.

“I pursued God. I felt blessed. I made a living, seemed to help people, prayers were answered. When I came out, I became healthier, lost sixty pounds, and other health issues cleared up. I found new friends and came to life. John 10:10. And I’m aware of more unanswered prayers. I'm single and desperate for a date, a boyfriend and ultimately a husband.

“I don’t want to be a role model for others, or an example of extraordinary grace. I want to know that God loves me, that he will provide for me, and meet that deep longing for intimacy… yes, in relationship with him, but also through another human, my elusive husband.

“I think the biggest damage done to me in all of this was to destroy my ability to have deep relationships with God, my husband, and others. Okay, there is a hell of a lot of energy in my response. I keep wrestling with God because of it. That’s better than not wrestling with God.

“For LGBT+ people who will get to know me, we walk together.

“I think this reflects how my relationship with the church and God is undergoing a major shift. That’s all I can say for now.”

Postscript: After reading this narrative, Doug wrote me, “The story ends on a sad note. A true note. I wish that were different. But it is.”

At first I thought Doug was right, but later I wrote him that I saw it as hopeful. I wrote back, “There's movement in it--wrestling with God, walking with fellow LGBT+ people, hope for intimacy. You are emerging.”

© Anna Redsand 2015 All Rights Reserved
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