A Perilous Journey to Authenticity: My Survival Story

Since the Pray Away film was released, I get asked the following questions series frequently. “How did you go from being out in the ’80s and back in the closet born again Christian in the ’90s. Then go to upper echelon leader of the exgay movement in the ’00s to be the EVP of Exodus and help shut it down, to coming out again (2015) as a gay, and still a Christian?”

Well, here goes 🙂

The Beginning

I am the kid on the left. The adorable one in white is my younger brother and we are with our beautiful Mom.

I was a cute, sensitive kid who liked playing with fall leaves, developed crushes on Bo and Luke Duke (Of Dukes of Hazard), and was much more interested in reading Stephen King and collecting comic strips out of the newspaper than playing football. Unfortunately, my home environment was chaotic in the beginning and slid right into abuse very quickly.

At five years old, I witnessed a very violent altercation my Mom and bio-Dad had, and he wasn’t part of my life for any time anyway and pretty much disappeared after that.

Because of my father’s addictions and abdication of parental responsibility, my mother worked three jobs to provide for us. We didn’t see her much (we were latch-key kids), and when we did see her, she didn’t have the energy or emotional bandwidth to deal with two very energetic little boys. She seemed out of control, angry, quite a bit. We were whipped mercilessly with those orange toy race car tracts. As my stepfather came onto the scene, the abuse slowed, but that didn’t last long and only got worse as time progressed. Our relationships are so much better today. I can look back now with understanding and even empathy. I know I get my stubborness and will to survive from my mother. Plus, what she went through as a child explains a LOT. But that’s her story to tell if she ever wanted to.

I don’t remember ever communicating in my house. My opinion was of no concern (so it seemed), and when I offered one or tried to join a conversation, I would be ridiculed or mocked, sometimes even bullied or physically punished at home and school. After a few years, we stopped celebrating holidays and birthdays. My Mom would try to sneak in a birthday cake or some presents, but my stepfather declared all of that was “just another day, no reason to celebrate.”

As my teen years progressed, my abuse of drugs did as well. I passed out one night at age 17, behind the wheel, and it is a miracle I didn’t die or kill someone. Also, the physical abuse from my stepfather became even more frequent and escalated to terrifying places a few times. All the while, I never learned to communicate in healthy ways. I really couldn’t communicate at all except in writing. English was my favorite class.

At 19, when I was forced out of the closet by my mother (she found an invite to a gay Valentine’s Day party in my jeans pocket when doing laundry), I was thrown out of the house without any idea on how to be an adult.

The Blurred Years

After my mother gave me an hour to get out of the house, I lived out of my car for three weeks. After that, I lived with Mella for a few weeks (now my Drag Mom and Guardian Angel). Then, I was transient for two years. Meaning I lived on people’s couches, floors, rented rooms, and eventually rented a sofa in a house full of very dysfunctional “party” people. I paid $40 a week to sleep on a couch in that house for about a year and a half. Of course, I waited tables during the day to get high and drunk every single chance I could, and that whole time in my life is a blur.

As mentioned, I had no adulting skills. I was deathly and irrationally afraid of rental applications, didn’t know how to interview for jobs. I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook or know where to begin in figuring out life. But for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of community and identity in the LGBTQ+ community.

That does not mean I was healthy; far from it.

We also didn’t have the resources back in the ’80s as we do now. But when I was high, sneaking into clubs, dancing the night away with attractive men, I was addicted to the escapism that XTC and other drugs provided. Sometimes I would have sex with men to have a bed to sleep in and free drugs.

Looking back, I don’t know how I survived. So many, SOOO many of my friends from back then passed away from AIDS or other violent, tragic deaths. I was involved in a very rough, often out-of-control party crowd and the victim of several assaults and hate crimes. Add in a couple of times when I overdosed; I think you get the picture.

Change of Scenery

Back in my day, we had to sell crap on the phone with paper and pencil!

On October 18, 1989, I moved from Nashville to Dallas. My Aunt sent me a one-way bus ticket and was going to help me “start over.” Those were her words, but the truth is, I never really started.

I will forever love my Aunt for that. But soon after moving to Dallas, I found the party and drug scene there right away and crashed to the bottom. In the wee hours of January 1, 1990, after a whole night of New Year’s Eve celebration, I got violently sick in the bathroom. As I went to wash my face, I looked in the mirror and saw a corpse (me) looking back. I was incredibly pale with a grey complexion, hair matted with sweat, glitter, and confetti. Then, behind my hollow eyes, I heard a voice say, “This is what you will look like when you die!” Then it laughed; I howled with grief and passed out.

The next day I knew I had to do something or I would be dead very quickly.

I had gotten a job selling crap on the phone. It was legal but still crap. My friend Amira who sat next to me selling crap, was a source of joy in my bleak existence. She is still my friend these 30 years later and will be the best person at my wedding in October. Anyway, at that time, she knew of a 12 step program and recommended I go. I did. While I am no longer a member of the 12 step program, that is where I first learned you could have a good honest conversation, sober.

In that little group, I also heard the words “unconditional” and “love” in the same sentence. I had never heard of the concept of “unconditional love” before. I will never forget the looks on their faces when they realized that I had never literally considered that before.

Because I didn’t have any real sense of self, I would be extraordinarily codependent and only found any sense of worth or self-definition in what others thought of me. So any kindness shown to me meant I was glued to and blindly loyal to whoever was being kind.

Come to Jesus

Shortly after joining the 12 step program, our little small group started converting or recommitting to their faith in Christ. I was a nominal Christian, but after some resistance, I also became “born again.” I truly believe I became a legitimate follower of Christ on May 31, 1992, and have been since.

I wish I had run down the Interstate to the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas (the most prominent gay church in the world), but I didn’t. Instead, I became a member of an artsy kind of church. They had great harmonies, painters, poets, lyricists, artists of all kinds. It wasn’t anything like what I was expecting, “going to church,” and that was disarming.

The problem is, they had a particular group for gays. It was an Exodus group named Living Hope Ministries. I went there later in the summer of 1992. And remember, I was barely adulting at this point. I still rarely talked and was trying to get used to living sober.

The Hook

At this incredibly vulnerable junction in my life where the exgay/conversion therapy as a ministry got its hooks into me. I now see that world as a cult because every dysfunction, wound, and nightmare experience is tied to my being gay. Being gay was defined as a “reparative” drive. That homosexuality was an “illegitimate (to God) way of trying to deal/cope with unmet needs or numb the pain of old wounds.” Their belief that I would adopt and eventually promote and teach blamed everything on being gay. They taught me that was abusing substances because somehow I knew being gay was sinful and “the wages of sin is death” and didn’t want to face my “mother and father wounds.”

I know now this is a bunch of bullsh*t, but I had nothing else to draw from at that point in my life. I had no social skills sober, and this group took me in with hugs and smiles. They had all the answers. And as someone who had a lifetime of not even knowing how to ask questions safely, I ate their attention and affirmation up.

I replaced XTC, other drugs, substance abuse with an addiction to affirmation and attention. I learned from this group to scapegoat all the pain and confusion as a sinful result of my being gay. The more I allowed Jesus to heal me of all those real peripheral issues, the more I would allegedly overcome the need to turn to sin to numb the pain via homosexuality.

Like every human who has lived through tragedy(ies), I should have been taught that I had issues and need legitimate social work and psychological help, not pseudo-psychology wrapped in religious platitudes and toxic theology. My being gay should have been celebrated and an anchoring part of my life, not this stigmatized bigotry.

But I wasn’t affirmed as a gay man and instead embraced the poison of exgay ideology wrapped in smiles and calm tones.

Exgay Poster-boy

Full page ad in Los Angeles Times.

After a while as a participant at Living Hope, I was asked to share my story. I will never forget it. I was a good storyteller, and people were crying, and all came up to hug me afterward. Remember, I had never been asked to share my story/thoughts/opinions before. Aside from the 12 step group I was briefly a part of, I was always used to people screaming, laughing at, or punishing me after I talked. But, here, they were telling me how courageous I was. They even said they loved me and how “eloquent” I was.

Over time I started leading a small group (weekly accountability, confession, prayer, etc.) and answering the letters that would come in from prisoners seeking financial help and how to not be gay in prison.

In time I would become the assistant, then executive director of Living Hope. Oddly enough, I found my voice for the first time within this world. I did grow out of codependency, substance abuse, and healing for some traumatic things that happened. None of that made me any less gay, just more of an adult slooooowwwwly starting to think for myself. I loved teaching, speaking, doing media interviews, creating the newsletter, training small group leaders, and learning how to develop non-profit boards.

I found out I was an extrovert and LOVE people. I loved meeting people, schmoozing, going to events, and eventually traveling all around North America, Capital Hill, and even over to England to go on speaking gigs at churches and conferences.

That is how I caught the attention of the Exodus headquarters and would move to Orlando in 2002 to join the staff.

Walls Get Chipped & Blinders Ripped Off

I would get “prophesied” over by quite a few different folks from around the exgay/conversion therapy world about how I would be promoted into leadership at Exodus and raised by God, to tell the truth to the entire world about homosexuality.

Little did any of us know at the time that they would be correct, but in the sense that I will help shut down Exodus and then go on to be in a Netflix film denouncing exgay ministry and conversion therapy. But I am getting ahead of myself.

At the time, I was regularly going to DC to meet with the top principals of all the major “religious right” groups. I was sharing my testimony in the Senate rooms of the Capitol building in DC, House and Senate offices, with staff at the Bush Whitehouse. I contributed to books, did significant media interviews, and chased around the leadership of over 200 organizations every day.

Then it all started to fall apart. As my ability to think for myself and gifts/talents emerged, the more self-aware I became. In 2005 I desperately went to an actual therapist (not a religious one with questionable credentials hired through a church, and not a conversion/reparative therapist) because I noticed that I was living in that constant state of existential fear again. I would get so irrationally angry, fearful, and would have “episodic bulimia.” Meaning, my therapist diagnosed me with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and its primary manifesting trigger behavior was bulimia. This eating disorder and self-harm had been happening my whole life, but in 2005 it was out of control, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Well, we figured it out with EMDR therapy. My therapist said that I was systemically abused growing up at home and school. We worked through some very incredibly painful traumatic events that I had never processed before. Even my first encounter in the party scene of the gay community was an outworking of that trauma. My counselor also believed my being a part of Exodus was an outworking of my trauma and that I should consider leaving to be a healthy gay man.

I was so not ready to hear that at the time.

No, he was not a fan of Exodus but was an excellent therapist. At the time, we agreed to disagree. But what we did agree on was what was triggering it so severely; it was all the scandals and abuse of power that I saw within the conversion therapy/exgay world. Now that I was the one tasked with putting out those fires, kicking people out of the network, calling state licensing boards, confronting lay leaders, dealing with board splits, having activists threaten and call me names, I was triggered all day every day, again.

With my counselor’s help and lots of prayers (my faith was actively involved the whole time), we gathered the good of who I was and made it an excellent core sense of self. His counsel, alongside my love for God, did transform me. Unfortunately, it took another eight years and the tragic death of a long-time friend to suicide to rip my blinders entirely off, but the wall between my authentic self and me was being chipped away starting around 2005.

Pray Away & Michael

I have told how Michael passed away to suicide in January of 2013 because of the toxic ideology that underlies the exgay ministry and how that confirmed my conviction to finish writing a report to recommend closing Exodus to the Exodus board. That part of my story is share on Anne Heche’s “Better Together With Anne and Heather” podcast, and in the Netflix film Pray Away alongside other former Exodus leaders renouncing their past roles and supporting the end of conversion therapy.

Michael’s death forced me to take the most fearless moral inventory of my life and it crushed me. It forced me to ask all the hard questions with stark honesty and no room for denial. I couldn’t deny the ideology we both ascribed to, that I promoted and lived by, killed him. We were already researching whether to close Exodus or not. After Michael passed away, I was convinced we should close Exodus. My boss and our board agreed and we closed Exodus June 19th, 2013.

Randy

My family.

I help shut down the organization that paid my bills. People say I (we) was (were) only in it for the money. That’s ridiculous because if true, Exodus would still be open. It was incredibly fearful and humiliating even, trying to rebuild a career as a responsible adult with a real job, after being in a cult for 22 years and at age 47. But, I did it because it was the right thing to do.

On January 12, 2015, I came out for the second time but really the first time. This time, I know who I am. I can be an adult and a great human being. I can fill out forms without having a panic attack (I still don’t like them, but, you know.) I like cocktails but haven’t had any drug-fueled orgies where years turn into a blur.

I started dating guys. I had sex with a couple of men for the first time in decades and maybe even the first time sober. But, shocker, I was a natural at it, and it was a lot of responsible fun. Then Dan asked me out at Orlando Pride 2016, and we are getting married this October 16, 2021, in two months! And, we just got our first home together this year.

My family in a pool 🙂

I have only been out of the closet for six years, so there is still much to learn and discover. But I love being a Bonus Parent to Autumn and Fur-Dad to Eli the Zombie Killing Chihuahua and Queen Gigi the Grey (love tank of a pitty-mix). I love the love in Dan’s eyes for me and that I feel for him. We are making a wonderful life together. 

My parents and I get along now because today, I determine the parameters. Plus, we have all grown since those many moons ago.

I know when I am triggered and have healthy coping skills to steward it without self-harm. So instead, I celebrate my gifts and humbly accept my character weaknesses.

As a former leader, I have many regrets and will carry the consequences of what I once did for the rest of my life. And as a survivor, I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to live, and live life fully.

I am also pretty f*cking proud of who God created me to be; a happy, healthy, whole, gay man. It took a long time but I am finally home where I should be.


If you have any questions or feedback please feel free to contact me or leave a comment below. I look forward to hear from you.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Gary Matson SR says:

    Thank you Randy for sharing your Amazing Life Story. Love and Prayers, Gary Matson SR, San Diego, CA.

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