'It was devastating': queer Evangelical survives gay conversion therapy and helps others heal

Dev Cuny grew up in a charismatic Evangelical home. Coming out as queer meant being condemned to hell. They tried to pray the gay away. It didn't work. Now Dev Cuny helps other survivors of conversion therapy.
(submitted by Dev Cuny)

Dev Cuny has always had a calling to the faith. 

Cuny, who comes from a staunchly evangelical Christian background and uses the pronoun 'they', says the concept of faith in their family was often an all-encompassing experience.

"Growing up in a fundamentalist, what I would call 'charismatic' Christian household, we built our entire lives around the rhythms of the church and of our belief," Cuny said. "It was a big part of our world, and I had a lot of fun with it."

But when Cuny realized that they were queer, that relationship with family and their larger faith community became severely fractured.

Cuny remembers being ostracized by friends, pastors, and senior family members after coming out.

"It was a very, very clear message that homosexuality was considered an abomination. And that meant hell."

In addition to being shunned by their community, Cuny also had to grapple with internal guilt and a growing sense of illegitimacy as a child of God.

(submitted by Dev Cuny)

It was at this crossroads that the idea of conversion therapy -- a religious practice aimed at changing someone's sexual orientation and/or gender identity -- became a reality in Cuny's life.

Cuny spoke to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about the journey to self-acceptance and becoming a beacon of hope for others who have gone through similar experiences. Here's part of that conversation: 

When the first stirrings came for you that 'I think I'm gay,' was that okay, in this [Christian Evangelical] context?

Absolutely not. From a young age, I was very proud to be homophobic. It was something that I knew I would get praised for, if I made fun of queer people. I was the person who created a rumour for our French teacher in middle school as being a lesbian because I knew it would get me attention and it also would reinforce that I was "normal." And so when I realised that I was a gay person, or queer, I knew that life was going to be significantly harder. I thought I would never be able to be a Christian and also be fully myself.

MH: What was the conversation like, broaching this with your parents for the first time? 

I had started to pick up on some clues that my parents might have suspected that I was queer. I had come out to myself and to a couple of friends early in high school, and I knew that when my parents found out, my life would never be the same. And so one summer afternoon, I walked in the family living room, my parents were sitting there in the dark, waiting for me to come in and [they] asked me if I was gay. 

When they asked, I didn't deny it. I said yes because I already figured they knew, and there was no hiding and it was just like this was the time to make it more official. This was a moment where my life would never ever be the same again. 

I'm really curious about that: one life was ending and another life was starting.

Yeah, at the time I absolutely didn't think there would be a positive ending. But once my parents saw me as a gay person, given our religious background, life was never going to be the same and it was a new life. Everything changed. I went from the assumption that I was a beloved child of Christ who was unconditionally loved, who was part of the church, who had a calling into ministry, to suddenly a person whose entire salvation was put into question.

Don't let people who are scared by your uniqueness stand in the way of what God has given you as your purpose and calling in this world. And I would say, just you wait, you're going to love the outcome.-  Dev Cuny

Was it said so plainly: "You are no longer a child of God?"

Yes, by certain church members, [and] my youth group leaders. I had a married couple who I actually went and confided in about my struggle before my parents knew, and they stopped talking to me after I told them. Pastors that I talked with [said] "If you want to be a part of this church, you need to go into conversion therapy, you need to be celibate, you need to work to be straight." It was a very, very clear message that homosexuality was considered an abomination. And that meant hell. I had never had to truly consider what [it] would mean or feel like to suddenly be excluded from my primary community, which was the church, and it was devastating. I simultaneously was trying to figure out how to keep my community or how to get back in, and also how to completely reject it. I had no examples growing up of people who were integrating their sexual orientation with their faith. You are either Christian, or you are gay.

You mentioned conversion therapy a minute ago. We should start with a definition of what it is, for people not familiar with this.

"Conversion therapy" is an umbrella term that describes any attempt to change someone's sexual orientation and/or gender identity. And that happens through a variety of tactics from talk therapy to shock therapy, to doing exorcisms or deliverances. [They] all have one thing in common, which is a repetitive message that a person is bad, is sick and needs help, and they are not a whole being [or] a healthy being until they become straight, and have the "traditional" gender identity that the church or that society has deemed appropriate.

You do a lot of work now with people who have been through conversion therapy and come out the other end in varying states of wholeness and wellness. Tell me about your work with the Born Perfect movement.

Yes, I am fortunate to get to speak out on behalf of the Born Perfect Campaign to End Conversion Therapy. It's a campaign that started in 2014 and it has grown to become an international campaign. We have been to the UN, all over the world. Obama [and] Clinton have both spoken out and have talked about Born Perfect and the dangers of conversion therapy. We've had two major motion pictures come out last year about conversion therapy, which to me is just shocking. I never knew that this particular topic would get so much press, because having been a survivor of it, I felt so isolated and alone. And I wasn't aware that there were so many people going through this as well. 

Being a part of the campaign and getting to go to conferences across America has opened up this world where I get to talk to other people who are survivors, but also parents who are struggling to figure out how they can still be a part of their church and love their child. And [I'm] also working with ministers who are like "Something doesn't feel right about this. I feel like we're not treating gay people or queer people the way God wants us to. But my church is so outspoken that it's wrong, what do I do?" And so the Born Perfect campaign has not only increased visibility that this happens, but it's also creating this network of survivors and people who are trying to figure out how to love no matter what. 

[And] there is nothing like getting to be there for people who are still struggling and helping them find resources and support within their own communities and letting them know that it is possible to heal and to come out of it.

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You have written about seeing yourself as a "wounded healer." It's a concept I've always been so interested in. Tell me why that feels right for you.

When understanding what a wounded healer is, I think about not just me, but anyone who has survived up until this point, survived any number of traumas that happen in this world.

My own life journey has broken open my heart in a way that I don't think it could have been opened up otherwise given where I come from. I grew up in a community that was very comfortable with their homophobia, very comfortable with their racism, very comfortable being in this little white Southern community where everything was alike. But because of my journey of realising that I'm queer [and] unfortunately going through conversion therapy and all of that, my heart has been open to understanding a much greater community and life that's out there. And because I am one of the lucky bunch to have survived and found a way to keep going day in and day out, my pain has turned into a tool for me to sit with others who are suffering.

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As we wrap up here I'm thinking back to quirky little you. What would you say to that kid from this vantage point where you are now? What would you want that kid to know?

I would want them to be as quirky and as outside the box as you can, because that is what makes you you, and it's what makes you beautiful. And why walk in a world wanting to fit in and be normal, when the great stories of our world have come when people have dared to walk their own path that does not necessarily fit what we've been told. I would want that kid to know to hang in there. And even though there might not be support at that young age, that one day there will be an entire community of people who will say "We love you, you are uniquely yourself, God made you absolutely the person you're supposed to be, you were born perfect, and that you have a right."

And I would tell this kid, you do not ever have to let go [of] anything that you don't want to. It is your choice. You are good. Don't let people who are scared by your uniqueness stand in the way of what God has given you as your purpose and calling in this world. And I would say, just you wait, you're going to love the outcome.