IN I98I, after 22 years of struggling with his sexual identity, Dennis Jernigan said he walked away from his gay lifestyle and embraced Christianity.
“I was changed, I was given a brand new identity in Christ, and I walked out of that lifestyle,” Jernigan, a 52-yearold musician and pastor from Oklahoma in the United States told editors and reporters at the Observer Monday Exchange last week.
For a long time the gay community has argued that it is impossible to simply stop being gay, and some of them have told Jernigan so to his face. But he has insisted his transformation is real and that God has given him the strength to become heterosexual, to the point where he got married and fathered nine children with his wife, Melinda, to whom he remains a devoted, faithful and loving husband.
“I have people in the gay community tell me all the time that I am just brainwashed. Yeah, that's true, but in a good way. I have people tell me all the time (that) I am in denial. I say yeah, in a sense you are right, I am denying all my past and receiving the future my God has for me.”
His journey has been rocky at best and he admitted that for a while, even after accepting Christ, he was still tempted by the gay life.
“That didn't mean the temptations stopped right away. But what it did, it enabled me to have the power to understand, 'I am going to be who my Father says I am. So [I said] Father, renew my mind... So for 30 years now I have kept renewing that in my mind.
“Temptation does not define me. Just because something tempted me, it doesn't make that who I am,” he said, his fingers entwined in those of his wife's as he told his story.
“I believe so firmly that freedom from homosexuality is available and possible in this life,” he said, “Just because you struggle with homosexuality, doesn't mean that is how you have to stay.”
“God was fighting for my soul,” he declared, noting that God finally won that battle while Jernigan was sitting in the audience at a Christian crusade in Oklahoma City.
The preacher told the congregation that there was a man in the audience that had a deep dark secret that he was terrified anyone would discover. Jernigan said he knew the preacher was talking about him.
“There is somebody here tonight who would be humiliated if people knew the things hidden in your heart,” Jernigan recalled the preacher said, and that he felt the crusader was speaking directly to him.
“I knew I would be rejected if people knew of my homosexuality,” he remembered thinking as the crusader's words reverberated in his ears that night.
“She said, 'God wants me to tell you something, He sees you just as you are and he loves you just as you are, right where you are, no matter what it is. He loves you enough not to leave you there'.”
“We want to sing over you and we want you to reach to the hidden place in your heart, take out the things that are your greatest hidden burdens and we want you to give them to the Lord, and you will receive what you need from Him',” the crusader said to him.
“All I wanted to know was, 'Do you love me Father, and can You heal my dilemma'?”
Jernigan said he was transformed that night.
“All of a sudden, I felt a level of freedom, a level of acceptance, a level of affirmation I had not expected. That night, God gave me a brand new identity, that is the best way I can put it to you,” Jernigan said, likening the experience to the biblical tale of Lazarus, who is described as rising from the dead through Jesus's power.
“He told me, 'son, that homosexuality is not what I intended for you, that's a deception. Put that off and put on the truth,” Jernigan said.
“All of a sudden, my sexuality changed. I was intending never to be married. I said, I'll just be celibate for the Lord, I want to be pure. But God said, 'no, I have even greater plans for you. I will give you a wife, I will bless you with a wife'. And then because I felt so robbed of life for so much of my life, God said 'I will give you, as many children as you want. I said okay,” Jernigan told the Monday Exchange with a chuckle, his wife laughing as she chimed in beside him, “I agreed.”
Jernigan is vice-chairman of the board of directors of Exodus International, a group that calls itself the largest ministry for homosexuals in the world and which specialises in so-called 'gay conversion'.
The father of nine doesn't believe people are born gay and refutes statistics from Dr Alfred Kinsey who suggested in reports released in the 1940's and 50's that 10 per cent, or one in 10 of all Americans are gay. The Kinsey Scale has been widely accepted in the US as evidence that homosexuality is 'normal', rather than an aberration.
But Jernigan believes that homosexuality develops when there is a disconnect between a parent and child of the same sex, especially boys and absentee fathers.
“For me, it was my father,” Jernigan revealed. “I perceived my father did not love me. I perceived that my father was harsh in his disciplining of me. I always thought he didn't want anything to do with me, unless it was to discipline me or when he needed me to do something for him.
“Because I was creative in my mindset, because I was very emotional, the other boys would call me 'fag' and 'queer' and 'sissy'. At five-years-old, I was confronted in a sexual manner when an adult male exposed himself to me.
“I did the right thing and wouldn't let the man touch me. But I stopped just short of telling my parents because I thought something must be wrong with me to make this man want to do that to me.
“I'd get to school and the other boys teased me senselessly because I liked to sing and I liked to play the piano, I was sensitive like girls were — at least that is what they told me. So everywhere I turned it was 'you are different, you are homosexual'.
“So I had all these different incidents which kept telling me, 'this is who you are, this is who you are... and as a child I thought that's it, this is what I am, I am different from other little boys... that was my mindset from early on. All these different circumstances led to that. I don't believe I was born this way...,” Jernigan said.
By the time he was 10, he fully believed that he was gay.
He writes in his blog on the Exodus International website that he had to keep his lifestyle hidden, especially since he had grown up in the church, which condemned gays.
“At church, I heard people say, 'All homosexuals should be shipped out of the country — they deserve to go to hell!' I felt condemned by their remarks, and had no idea where to turn for help. So I hid my same-sex desires through high school.”
It continued until college, where he fully immersed himself in the gay lifestyle.
“In college, I discovered other students who were also struggling with homosexual desires. We gravitated toward one another, and I became entrenched in the physical and emotional aspects of homosexuality. But the more I believed homosexuality was my “real” identity, the more miserable I became,” he writes.
It was during Jernigan's sophomore year that he met the woman who he would, against the odds, marry and father children with one day.
“I thought Melinda was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Something drew me to her, something I had never felt before. But, even though we dated on and off through college, I still had sexual encounters with other men on the side.
“By my senior year, I was totally confused and frustrated. I decided that my life was not worth living. After all, I had begged God since childhood to remove these feelings and it seemed like nothing had happened.
“One night during my last semester of school, as I sat in my little apartment alone, I decided I would rather be dead than living 'this life'. After extinguishing the pilot light, I turned on the gas in my little heater, lay down, and waited to die.
However, after a few minutes, Jernigan wrote, he grew very fearful and turned off the gas. “What does eternity hold? I wondered. Whatever it is, I'm not ready.”
His confusion led to his breakup with Melinda and becoming completely assimilated into his homosexuality, even beginning a three-month relationship with a man.
“This is who I am,” Jernigan said he told himself. “I was born homosexual, and this kind of life is what God intended for me.”
But instead of finding happiness, he just became more miserable and stayed miserable until that fateful night when he said the power homosexuality had over him was broken during the crusade by those visiting evangelists.
Jernigan wrote, “For the first time, I realised that homosexuality was a sin that Jesus died for. I heard Him say in my heart, 'Dennis, I'm making you somebody brand new. My blood has paid your debt. You are free'.”
That night, over 31 years ago, was the beginning of his “incredible journey”.
“Jesus began to change my sexually perverse thoughts and desires with holy and pure thoughts about what sexual love was all about,” said the evangelist.
He reconnected with his old girlfriend, Melinda, proposed to her, married her and starting having babies with her — omitting to tell her his old painful secrets. It wasn't until after baby number three that he found himself compelled to tell her he was once gay.
“In July 1988, I realised that God wanted to take the greatest failures and weaknesses of my life and make them my greatest strengths. Not only this, but if I confessed my past freely, Satan would have no ammunition against me. No longer would I have to live in fear of others finding out about my homosexual background.”
“So I shared my past with Melinda. Although she had questions, she was grateful that I felt secure enough in her love to share my most intimate past sins,” said Jernigan.
While the US has been racked by heated debate about the 'gay conversion' religious movement, Jernigan says his own conversion isn't all that uncommon in his country.
“This may sound really mystical to you,” he said, “But I know hundreds of men and women in the United States who have walked out of homosexuality and now walking the true freedom. That's the story you are not hearing, but that's the truth.”
“That is why I am so adamant about this, freedom is possible,” he declared, his voice cracking with emotion. It is a message he is determined to impart to Jamaicans.
When the vice-chairman of Exodus International left his home in Muskogee, Oklahoma for Jamaica a few weeks ago, intending to share his music in Christian concerts and in ministry, he had no idea that homosexuality was a hot-button issue here. When he found himself in the middle of a huge debate about homosexuality and gay marriage he said he questioned why God had led him to this country at this particular time.
“I said, 'hmmm... God, what are you up to? You've plunged me right in the middle of this'.
“But I want to save your nation. I don't want to do anything other than minister to you, to tell you my story, to serve the people of Jamaica, because I don't want to see happen here, what happened in America,” he said.
On his website, the evangelical songwriter, author, minister, husband, and father of nine, who says he was 'healed' of being gay, offers resources for those struggling with same sex attraction along with his albums.