The prophet had come up from Georgia. She stood at the front of the Holy Ghost Temple Church and called for parishioners to come forward. On this Sunday in February, roughly 100 worshippers filled the white-walled Pentecostal sanctuary that sits on a wooded hill beside a BMW dealership. Among them was 20-year-old Kevin Robinson. He stepped out from his pew, walked up the lavender carpet, and joined the line in front of the prophet. He wanted to be prayed over, as is common in the Pentecostal tradition, by this powerful preacher. In the eyes of believers such as Kevin, a prophet speaks the very word of God and can divine the future.
"I have a lot on my mind right now—my mind isn't focused," Kevin explained to the woman, whose name was Mary. She was in her late thirties, slim, and wore a black dress. "Could you please pray for that?"
"Are you gay?" the prophet asked him.
In a quiet, gentle voice, Kevin acknowledged that he was.
"Speak up," the woman commanded. "I can't hear you."
Yes, Kevin repeated, he was gay.
"You need to be delivered from homosexuality," the prophet said into a microphone so that all the church could hear. Kevin was embarrassed, but he stayed put. This was no normal preacher—she spoke God's truth. According to church dogma, homosexuality is a sin foisted on humans by demons who take possession of their bodies and compel them to act against God's will. These evil spirits can be exorcised by those trained in spiritual warfare in a ritual known among Pentecostal Christians as deliverance. Perhaps, Kevin thought, this prophet could finally deliver him from his demons.
The prophet placed her hands on Kevin and began to pray over him. "Come out, come out!" she shouted. "In the name of Jesus, I command you to come out! You gonna free him right now!"
Kevin closed his eyes, thinking to himself, "There's something wrong with me; I need to change." A part of him believed this prophet could do what no one else had been able to do during previous deliverance attempts—make him heterosexual. But the prophet was loud and she looked at him with disgust and contempt as her chants became more and more belligerent. Even now Kevin can't bring himself to repeat the most hurtful things she said. He soon began to cry. And then, with the prophet still exhorting the demons in him to depart, he blacked out and collapsed. When he regained consciousness, he stood up and returned to his seat. His shame was turning to rage. He searched his mind and thoughts and found he was unchanged—he was still attracted to men. In the past it had been family members—his mother, his aunt, or his uncle, the church's pastor—who performed deliverance on him. This time it was a stranger, and she had pushed him beyond the breaking point. Never again, he decided, would he allow himself to be treated this way.
It was, by Kevin's count, at least the 10th time since he was 16 that he'd subjected himself to gay exorcism.
It's impossible to know how many young gay people have undergone exorcism in the thousands of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches across the country—not all of which, to be sure, condone the practice. However, youth workers say they regularly deal with the aftermath of these rituals. And not just in the parts of the country where Evangelical Christianity is traditionally strong. Kevin Robinson's church is located in West Springfield, Massachusetts, just across the border from Connecticut, where he lives—gay marriage is legal in both states.
Last June a video of a preacher performing an exorcism on a gay teenager in Bridgeport, Connecticut, appeared on YouTube. In it, the pastor and at least three church members press the boy's stomach—sometimes with their hands, sometimes with a foot, sometimes in a bear hug from behind—until the boy begins to vomit. True Colors, a nonprofit support organization for young gay people based in Hartford, reported the episode to the state's department of children and families. The boy in the video later declared that he was unharmed and now no longer gay, and the controversy passed. But it was no isolated incident. "At least once or twice a month I get a call from someone who's been exorcised," says Kamora Herrington, the mentoring-program director for True Colors. "And no one wants to believe this is happening in beautiful, genteel Connecticut."
Peterson Toscano, a gay Christian activist, underwent three exorcisms before coming to terms with his sexuality. One took place in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, another in an apartment on the West Side of Manhattan owned by Joanne Highley, who runs L.I.F.E. Ministry. During the latter exorcism, Highley had him lie down on her bed, then she sat beside him and began to press on his body, commanding the demons to exit through his mouth and rectum. Before the rite was complete, Toscano, who says he felt increasingly violated by Highley's actions, stopped the ritual and left her apartment. Highley did not respond to requests to be interviewed, but she has previously stated that her process is to "cleanse and bind demonic powers . . . out of genitals, of course out of anal canals, out of intestines, out of throats and mouths if there's been ungodly deposit of semen in those areas—we cleanse with the blood of Jesus, and we cast out the demonic powers." Some practitioners of deliverance believe that a demon has a physical as well as a spiritual form and can be purged through the orifices—thus an exorcism can be judged successful if the subject vomits, coughs up sputum, or, in rare cases, evacuates his bowels.
Many of those who undergo gay deliverance are minors, and critics like Herrington and Toscano question whether child abuse is taking place. "For a young person, being told that you house evil, that you're basically a mobile home for evil spirits—that is a very, very damaging concept," says Toscano. "It's one of the most extreme manifestations of the anti-gay rhetoric within the church."
Even some Christians who are intolerant of homosexual behavior worry about the practice. "It is dangerous," says the Reverend DL Foster, a preacher in Atlanta who defines himself as ex-gay, though he still acknowledges homosexual desires, and preaches against tolerance of the gay lifestyle. "It can fuel lots of self-destructive behavior . . . If you have been told that a demon is possessing you and you feel powerless to do anything about it, eventually you're going to accept it."
Prosecutors and child-welfare agencies are reluctant to interfere in any religious ritual, given the protection afforded by the First Amendment. In October 2005, for example, a teenager named D.J. Butler was taken in handcuffs by his father to a controversial Christian camp in Tennessee run by a group called Love in Action that aims to turn young homosexuals straight. The state investigated the incident but decided it could not legally prevent Love in Action from operating the camp.
Jack Drescher, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College and an expert in sexual orientation, points out that there may be precedent for authorities to intercede. "Some courts have determined that Christian Scientists who withhold mainstream medical treatments from their children for religious reasons may be found criminally negligent if the child dies," Drescher says. "So all religious activities are not protected if they cause harm to children."
But there appear to have been no cases challenging gay exorcism in the United States to date, nor, apparently, has there been any research into the psychological impact of the practice, without which prosecution remains unlikely. "Before it could be construed as child abuse, some kind of empirical or scientific case would have to be made that exorcisms cause harm," Drescher says.
According to Christians who practice deliverance—and that includes Kevin Robinson's uncle Leroy Stovall, who founded Holy Ghost Temple Church, and Kevin's mother, Vivian Robinson—the critics misunderstand what the rite is all about. To deliver someone of demons is an act of love and care—a noble struggle to save the subject from the clutches of the Devil. "I deal with spiritual warfare a lot," says Vivian, a registered nurse who is a high-ranking elder in the church. "We believe things can be cast out through the blood of Jesus and the faith and calling on God's power . . . I have cast the spirit out of Kevin. Oh, my God, it's a lot of work."
The last time she tried to exorcise Kevin was two years ago, in the bathroom of her house. She spread oil on Kevin's head and began to pray, with her hands pressing on his head and abdomen.