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.
"He was over the toilet vomiting as I began to call out the spirits," she recalls. Kevin, or something inside Kevin, started to scream. "I mean a horrific scream, like none you've ever heard. Because that spirit didn't want to come out. But then it began to yield."
After about 20 minutes, Kevin unleashed a stream of shouted profanities. At one point Vivian asked the demon its name. The demon seemed to emerge from Kevin, she says, speaking its name in Latin in a very deep voice. When I ask Vivian what the name was, she goes silent for a moment. "I really wouldn't want to say that name," she says. I ask her if she could spell the name. "I really don't even want to pronounce it. I don't even want to give it the recognition."
• • •
It is too early to assess what long-term impact Kevin's deliverances might have on him. However, Vincent Cervantes, a 22-year-old from Southern California, has a little more distance from his own experience with exorcism, and his struggles suggest that the psychological effects can be lasting.
During the summer of 2008, while at UC Santa Barbara, Cervantes had a nightmare and woke in tears. The dream, which recurs to this day, replayed the exorcism he had undergone two years earlier in his pastor's candlelit office. The preacher and three officials of the Assemblies of God church prayed over him, anointing his forehead with oil and pressing on his chest. A metal bucket sat under Cervantes' chair to catch his vomit. After two hours, the men performing the rite began speaking in tongues.
"I fell out of the chair and was flat on the ground, crying a lot," Cervantes says. "I had started speaking in tongues too. My body started thrusting. I was pretty sure it was a demon causing me to thrust." He remembers repeating the following mantra: "Shandra si piara ma lalio shandrasi." He had, and has, no idea what it might mean. After a while, the men helped Cervantes stand. "They all gave me a hug," he says, "and we cried together."
Two weeks later, when he found himself attracted to a male student, Cervantes blamed himself. "I felt I had failed God," he says. "Nothing, not even an exorcism, can fix me. In my mind I was going to go to hell. I became very suicidal. I absolutely hated myself."
Eventually, he sought counseling. His therapist told him that his depression was caused by a suppressed traumatic experience. Once the nightmares began, his memory came flooding back. "This is how I started recalling the exorcism," he says. "Every time I'd dream it, I'd remember another detail." As he did, Cervantes unraveled—he lost weight, began spending whole days in bed, and suffered from flu-like symptoms much of the time.
Cervantes, who is a student at UC Riverside, is now at peace with being gay and remains a devout Christian. He also bears no ill will toward the preacher who performed his deliverance. "He was acting out of love," he says. "He did this because he cared about me. But he did more harm than good."
• • •
Deliverance has always been a part of Kevin Robinson's spritual life, as it has for millions of Americans who believe demons cause eating disorders, infidelity, addiction, and many other sinful activities. "I've been delivered from a lot of things," Kevin says. "I used to get really bad headaches—I got prayer for that. My mom said I lied too much, and she prayed over me for it to stop."
Kevin is a lifelong member of the Holy Ghost Temple Church. The third of five children, he grew up 15 minutes away in Enfield, Connecticut. His uncle has led the parish for more than 20 years. His mother is an elder, and his father, Bertrum, holds the title of minister, a position slightly lower in the church hierarchy.
Vivian Robinson does not believe that Kevin was born gay. "God never makes mistakes," she says. She believes that a rapist passed a homosexual spirit to her son when he was 16. Kevin acknowledges that the rape occurred but denies that it is what made him gay.
By then he had already been having sexual feelings toward other boys for several years. In his mind, what he felt was "wrong" and "a sin," and he believed "you could even possibly go to hell for it." At first, he did not tell his parents about it. Soon after he was raped, he began dating a boy. Tired of hiding his sexuality, he told his mother that he was gay.
"No, you're not," she responded. As they argued, she opened the Bible to the chapters that she said proved homosexuality was an abomination and a sin.
To Kevin's surprise, his father was calm when Kevin came out to him. "That's okay," Kevin recalls his father saying.
However, someone at the church came across Kevin's MySpace page, on which he made it clear he was gay, and told his uncle, Pastor Stovall. Stovall's wife, who died last year, was the first to ask Kevin if he wanted to be delivered.
"I said no," Kevin says, "because I didn't think this had to do with being delivered." But one Sunday, he started having doubts. Scared that he might indeed be possessed, Kevin came forward when Stovall called him up for prayer. Stovall and a group of eight ministers placed their hands on Kevin's body and head and pressed hard.
"In the name of Jesus, you've got to leave!" Stovall called out. "Right now! Set him free!"
Kevin fell to the floor. At his uncle's urging, he called on Christ to help him. "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," Kevin repeated.
"And then I stop," Kevin recalls calmly. "Then I get up. I don't know—I feel the same way." He was still attracted to men.
That was just the first of the church's attempts to exorcise the gay demons that were believed to be possessing Kevin.
"Another way for them to heal you is to get the Holy Ghost," he says. "It's when you call on Jesus over and over again and you purge—the Lord comes and he fills you with the Holy Ghost and you start to foam at the mouth."
Kevin recalls one instance when he began to foam at the mouth. "There's spit, a form of spit, but they say it's sin coming out of you," he says. "You're being cleansed. You foam for a while and then it stops. That's when the tongues come the sign that you've received the Holy Ghost."
Kevin found himself speaking in tongues several times. The phenomenon, also known as glossolalia, is mysterious and disputed. To the believer it is a holy language passed down from God. To the skeptic it is a nonsensical but structured jumble of sounds. For his part, Kevin believes it is a spiritual gift. "You feel good," he says. "You feel like the power of the Lord is inside of you. You feel . . . happy."
You do not necessarily become straight, however.
As each successive exorcism failed to cast the gay demons from him, Kevin spiraled into a deep depression. His mother forced him to stop seeing his boyfriend—"the one person in the world who could understand me." Kevin, who was five feet nine at the time, began losing weight, getting down to 113 pounds. At high school one day he began to have a nervous breakdown—he was unable to eat, he couldn't stay sitting down, his thoughts were a manic eruption that made him think his head would explode. Soon after, he was admitted to a children's hospital in Hartford for three months.
When he got home, Kevin began to experiment with dressing in drag, which infuriated his father. (Bertrum Robinson declined to be interviewed for this story.) "He told me to be a man and grow up," Kevin says. "'Stop acting like a sissy. . . . Stop acting like a fag.'"
One day, when Kevin was 18, he arrived at a midweek service wearing makeup, a black-and-light-brown wig, tight women's jeans, and a black women's V-neck shirt. The church elders refused to allow him into the building. The following week his aunt implored him to be exorcised, but this time he refused.
Kevin overheard his father telling a friend on the phone: "My son thinks he's a woman now." Later Kevin returned home to find his father in a rage. "Get out of my house right now," his father said, according to Kevin, who packed a few things and left.
He spent that night in a homeless shelter in Hartford, sleeping on a couch alongside drug addicts. Scared, he turned to his high-school therapist. "She decided I needed to go to the hospital again," he says. "Because I wasn't all there. I was having panic attacks. Like, lots of them. I'd be lying down, and all of a sudden I'd wake up and I can't breathe."
During the six-month stay in the state psychiatric hospital for children that followed, Kevin joined a support group that made him feel more at peace with his sexuality. When he was discharged, he decided to get his own apartment and enroll in college. He now lives alone in a sparsely furnished walk-up in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Kevin loves singing and he's studying music and voice as a freshman at Manchester Community College, where he is out to his classmates. Sometimes he wears makeup, but he is over his drag-queen phase. I ask Kevin if he is now 100 percent sure that being gay is not a sin.
"Not 100 percent," he says. "It'll always be in the back of my mind. I guess it's the way I was raised. You don't know how many times I heard preached that homosexuality is a sin—you're going to burn in hell for it. It's funny how nobody at church wanted to sit down and explain why this was happening. They just want to get rid of it, basically."
Vivian Robinson acknowledges that her son still has homosexual feelings, but she has no plans to try to deliver him again. She loves him, she says, and she was very unhappy at the way the prophet from Georgia vilified her son in church. "God doesn't hate anybody," Vivian says. "God loves everybody." To her, many of their family issues had to do with Kevin's age. He was a difficult teenager who is growing easier to relate to. Since he moved out they have a better relationship. And she acknowledges that perhaps she has to allow Kevin—and God—to work things out for himself. "I do look at things a little differently now," she says. "I've learned that a person has to want to be delivered."
By mid-April, Kevin had returned to the church with his family. He's back in the choir, attending practice every Thursday. He hasn't undergone another deliverance, but the dogma is the same, he says. "They want you to change. It's just a lot of stuff you can't do. You can't do this, you can't do that. I'm getting overwhelmed—again. It just feels like it's too much, like today I just felt so overwhelmed. There's no possible way I can be Mr. Perfect Man."
I ask Kevin whether he would make himself straight if he could. "Yeah, I would," he says without hesitation. "I'm not going to lie—I would love to just fit in and be accepted."
But that doesn't seem likely. Not long ago, after choir practice ended, another singer—a young man Kevin's age—took exception to the look of Kevin's slicked-back hair and effeminate manner and accused him of being "the Devil's child."
"I said, 'I'm not the Devil's child, I'm one of God's,'" Kevin says. "He was like, 'Yeah, right.'"