Last Saturday, the Washington Post published Anthony Faiola's astounding dive into the bizarre world of Catholic exorcisms, which are alive and well under the reign of Pope Francis. As my colleague Laura Helmuth noted in an interview with Faiola, perhaps the most indelible detail of the story pertains to an impromptu exorcism performed by a priest on two lesbians during a Swissair flight. The priest, the Rev. Cesar Truqui, claimed the lesbians were possessed by demons—but it seems quite possible that Truqui, a member of the conservative Legionaries of Christ, inferred their demonic possession from their sexual orientation. Are gay people really exorcised to rid them of their homosexuality?
Yes—but Catholics aren't the main offenders. Rather, it's mostly Charismatic Christians, such as Pentecostals, who attempt to pray the gay away via exorcism. Roland Stringfellow, a pastor of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit, notes that these denominations spiritualize just about everything and believe that people have a spirit for every problem. Homosexuality, to these religions, is its own discrete problem—one even more troubling than alcoholism or drug addiction. Accordingly, Charismatic congregations are eager to cast the "demon" of homosexuality out of gay people through exorcism, often in public at the altar of a church.
Stringfellow himself was subject to such an exorcism when he was in college and was still closeted.
"I was trying to get rid of my same-sex attractions," he told me. "The person at the altar yelled so everyone could hear: 'Demon of homosexuality! Come out of this young man!' And he smacked me on my forehead to 'slay me in the spirit.' A friend had to get me up from the altar, pick me up, and get me back to my seat, because I was absolutely mortified. My secret had now been announced, proclaimed, to all of these individuals."
Compared with other known gay exorcisms, Stringfellow's experience was relatively peaceful. In 2009, Manifested Glory Ministries released a horrifying video that purported to show the exorcism of a gay 16-year-old boy. In the clip, parishioners scream at the boy and hold him on the ground as he writhes around in apparent agony and then vomits. Manifested Glory defended the exorcism, stating that the boy "was dressing like a woman and everything" and that "we believe a man should be with a woman and a woman should be with a man." Numerous other survivors of exorcisms have come forward to tell similar horror stories.
Luckily, these episodes are fairly rare. Robin McHaelin, executive director of the gay youth advocacy group True Colors, told me that gay exorcisms are not very common at all and are unheard of in the Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu faiths. Only a few Christian sects perform them—though there is sometimes a thin line between the "prayer, anointing, [and] violence" that occurs during exorcisms and the "various behavior modification techniques" used by ex-gay ministries. Notably, most of these exorcisms are performed on youths, who are considered to be impressionable and who can be physically forced to participate in the activity.
Still, so long as deeply religious parents are disgusted by their children's orientation, they're liable to go to great lengths to "rid" them of their homosexuality. I asked Stringfellow what advice he'd give to parents who are considering exorcising their gay kids.
"These parents love their kids," he told me. "What they need to understand is that forcing your children to be something that they're not is really not helping. In fact, what you're doing is pushing them further away from their faith and further away from God. It's the complete opposite of what you're hoping to accomplish."