From ages 17 to 26, Julie Rodgers was a celibate gay Christian—a poster child for conversion therapy, the program supported by some evangelicals who believe people can “convert” from gay to straight sexual orientations. After traveling the speaker circuit with prominent conversion therapy groups Living Hope and Exodus International, Rodgers became Wheaton College’s first openly gay associate chaplain in 2014, urging LGBTQ students to practice celibacy—until she was forced to resign in 2015 after writing a blog post supporting same-sex relationships.
Her memoir Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story (Broadleaf Books, June 22, 2021), releasing during Gay Pride Month, chronicles the self-harm, self-loathing, and self-denial of those years. She's currently a speaker and advocate for the #OutloveProject, which is donating copies of the book to at-risk LGBTQ youth, and donating some of the proceeds of her book to The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth.
Rodgers spoke with PW about her journey from trauma and pain to peace, self-love, and a happy marriage.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did spending your formative years in conversion therapy groups impact your development?
I went through a wrenching, devastating process during all those critical years where my brain was still growing and most kids were starting to have their first kiss and getting to date and have adult figures in their lives giving feedback on what a healthy relationship looked like. I feel deeply grateful to have such a generous, kind, compassionate wife, Amanda, who’s had a lot of grace for me as I fumbled along learning so many of those key things. And I also wish I didn't have to learn those things now in my 30s.
Why do so many churches present celibacy as the only viable option for LGBTQ Christians?
The gay celibacy line was the closest [the evangelical church] could get to being able to hold onto their beliefs and have an argument for practicing their religion in a way that didn't overtly discriminate against LGBTQ people. One could say that they also felt compassion for people like me and did want to find a way to be able to allow us to remain in their communities. But I think at the more administrative level, among a lot of leaders in these religious institutions, there was probably more of a political strategy.
When did you realize, as you write, you “had been abused by the system” in the church?
I grew up with this idea that I was supposed to carry my cross just like Jesus, and that it would entail great suffering, but that I would be rewarded in the afterlife and heaven. I wasn't able to really see how my own suffering mattered. But in 2013 I was in a Los Angeles ex-gay survivors circle with other LGBTQ people who had survived conversion therapy. I couldn't avoid seeing myself in their stories and saying, "Not only are they worthy of compassion, they're telling my story too, and I deserve compassion."
After years of self-harm, including self-inflicted cigarette burns that left scars on your body, you wore a sleeveless gown to your wedding. Why?
When I was in conversion therapy, I felt a real sense of shame around it. But over the years I came to really see my scars as a symbol of all that I had survived. I began to really see my body as resilient and beautiful. When I married Amanda, I wanted that to be front and center, that I'm bringing this body that has lived through all of that trauma into this marriage and into my future. And it's being redeemed.
How do you describe your faith identity today?
To me, if theology can be used to shame and exclude, then theology can also be used to welcome and celebrate. I really love Jesus. I really do. I am still a Christian, and I am interested in any movement that's about welcome and inclusion for those who have felt pushed down and cast out.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer and co-author of ‘The Yoga Effect: A Proven Program for Depression and Anxiety’ (Da Capo / Lifelong, 2019).