Amanda Barbour

From "A Changed Woman," September 2014.
Photography by Elizabeth Lavin

A Changed Woman

After 10 years of conversion therapy, Amanda Barbour finally gets the wedding of her dreams.

After two years of conversion therapy, Amanda had grown her hair out and was wearing more makeup. She got manicures and pedicures and wore skirts and things that sparkled. She’d become the poster child for the therapy. And for maybe the first time in her life, she felt like a leader. She would explain to people that they needed to stop masturbating. If a woman felt herself getting too close with another woman, Amanda was there to remind her she needed to cut that off. She told people they needed to pray more. She volunteered to stay up all night and pray with people online.

Many of the young men and women she connected with were victims of abuse. Some had grown up in broken homes, in towns where they were outcasts. But some didn’t. Some grew up in wonderfully supportive homes. In therapy, they had to deal with having been loved too much. Amanda wanted to help them all. She wanted to be there to show them that transformation is possible.

When she looked at David, she saw the normalcy she’d been building toward this whole time.

Through an AOL chat room for ex-gay people, she met a guy who lived in Iowa, and they started dating long distance. After a year and a half, they were talking about getting married and eventually starting a ministry of their own. He’d preach, she’d share her story, and together they would lead people out of this lifestyle. Amanda saw him mostly at conferences. They’d go for walks and hold hands and pray together. But at one of the conferences, while Amanda was waiting to go for a walk with him, he stood her up to spend time in a hotel room with another man. Her boyfriend was asked to apologize to the group, then separated from everyone else.

Amanda was hurt, but she wasn’t deterred. She was more embarrassed than anything. They’d told so many people about their plans. She’d introduced him to her church. Now she just wanted to get away. So at the invitation of some of the group leaders, Amanda moved to Texas, to be closer to the Exodus ministry. She took an administrative job at the office in Arlington.

There were more conferences, several a year, and she paid her own way each time. Between flights, hotels, food, and fees, she was spending thousands of dollars. But they were what she looked forward to most. After a while, they felt like family reunions.

At the conferences, she and her friends would pick seminars and classes about different issues they were facing. Classes about relationships between women, about emotional dependency, about sexual addiction. One class was about “re-parenting” and something called “holding therapy.” The idea was that maybe you could reconstruct your birth experience and be forced from the womb again whole, with someone holding you and speaking the affirming, gender-appropriate words God wanted to say to you. 

They went one at a time. The director sat cross-legged on the floor of a hotel room. Seeing her friends—people in their late teens and 20s—crawl up into the lap of their director made Amanda giggle. She was the only woman. The men were told that they were strong young men. It looked so awkward. Then it was Amanda’s turn to be held and rocked like a baby.

“You are a princess,” she was told. “You are beautiful and soft and gentle.”

At first she laughed, but the words kept coming. “You’re my daughter. You’re a beautiful girl. You’re a princess.”

By the end, she was crying. She didn’t even understand why.

•••

few years later, during another meeting, the group was separated by gender. The young men were taken outside and taught the rules of football. The young women stayed inside, where they were taught etiquette—which fork to use, how to set a table, proper leg-crossing methods—and they were each given makeup consultations. 

Amanda thought it seemed irrational, maybe even condescending. She’d been doing this for nearly eight years at this point. She knew how to put on makeup, and she knew that makeup doesn’t make a woman holy or straight.

She’d also grown tired of the restrictive nature of the forums. After all this time, these people were her genuine friends. To think that they shouldn’t be sharing email addresses—that they shouldn’t be communicating outside of the monitored forum—was insulting. Still, she held out hope. She hoped that all of this would mean something. She prayed that God would reward her with the life she so desperately wanted.

Eventually, she met another guy. His name was David, and he struggled with same-gender attraction, too. They thought that meant they were perfect for each other. He was a little older than she, with piercing blue eyes and a touch of gray scruff around his chin. He was sweet and smart and funny, and she liked spending time with him. She and David were celibate, but they talked about how, in time, God would give them more intense desires. They got along like best friends, who sometimes held hands and once in a while kissed. They said “I love you.” It felt so mature, so holy. When she looked at him, she saw the normalcy she’d been building toward this whole time. So when he broke it off after eight months—telling her that “God told me to”—she was shattered.  

She felt betrayed. She’d done everything right. She’d followed all the rules. The more she thought about it, the angrier she got. She felt lied to, and she was mad at herself for having believed for so long. She was mad at the ministry. She was mad at God. She wondered if she’d ever seen any real healing. 

She thought about the people she’d befriended over the years. There had been so much self-destruction. So many of her ex-gay friends were cutting themselves or ruining their lives with drugs and alcohol and anonymous sex. One friend so hated his own sexual impulses that he developed an elaborate plan to slice off his own manhood.

Amanda was done with it. Done with the ministry. Done with the forums. She wasn’t sure what she wanted, but she knew she didn’t want this. She needed a fresh start.

In 2008, she took an administrative job at SMU, at the Perkins School of Theology. Slowly, she got to know some of the people she worked with. Most of her new colleagues were Christian, but they were also liberal. She heard theologians talk about the Bible not as a clearly defined set of rules, but instead as a book written thousands of years ago that can help us understand the human experience. She heard people say that the true sin might be refusing to embrace yourself as God made you. Someone told her about a small church of lesbians who met in a yoga studio. It occurred to her that none of these women was ashamed. And this was about much more than sexuality. She saw that they trusted and loved themselves, and they trusted God with their lives.

After a few months, she joined a group at the school for LGBT students and allies. She told people she was an ally and became a safe person for students who were wrestling with sexuality. At one point, she even reached out to Shannon. They had coffee, and Amanda apologized.

Her parents noticed a change. They didn’t mention it, though. And after what happened the first time, Amanda wasn’t about to rush into any conversations. But her mother couldn’t help it anymore. It was Christmas morning, and the family was sitting around opening gifts. Out of nowhere, her mother asked, “Are you?”

Amanda knew what she was asking, but she pretended not to. “Am I what? Happy with the slippers you bought me?”

“Are you gay?”

Amanda asked her mother if she was ready for the answer to that question, if she was sure she wanted to know. She’d remember her mother just staring at her, wide-eyed.

That’s when Amanda came out to her parents a second time. She explained that it wasn’t because she’d been with a woman or because someone had lured her from a holy path. She told them she’d been celibate, that she hadn’t had any relationship of any kind in more than a year. She knew who she was inside, and she didn’t want to hate herself anymore. 

A few years into Amanda’s therapy, her parents had moved to Fort Worth to be close and supportive. But they never connected to a church in Texas the way they had in Ohio. And in the 10 years since the first time they’d had this talk, society’s view of gay people had changed considerably.  

So there was less yelling this time. Amanda’s father told her that this was the happiest he’d seen her in 15 years, and that was good enough for him. Her mother was angry and scared. She didn’t want her daughter to be gay. She didn’t talk to Amanda for three weeks and at one point made a harsh comment on a Facebook photo of Amanda and her friends. When they did finally meet—a get-together brokered by Amanda’s father—her mother was still cold, defiant. 

Amanda decided she’d had enough. She stood up and hugged her father. She looked at her mother.

“When you’re ready to continue this, let me know,” she said. “I want to be in a relationship with you, but I’m not going to do this again.”

Then she left. She’d been on the road for about 15 minutes when she got a call and turned around. They met at a Cheddar’s in Bedford and ordered drinks. Several drinks. Strong drinks. And Amanda’s mother said she wanted a relationship but admitted that she didn’t know what it meant to have a lesbian daughter. She asked Amanda if she was going to turn into Chaz Bono.

Amanda smiled. 

•••

The next summer, Amanda met someone, a third-year divinity student—a pastor in training. Heather was smart and funny and kind. She wanted to help people, to ease suffering. She’d also spent a lot of her life trying to be someone she wasn’t. 

They met in the LGBT organization on campus. Their initial connection came at a lunch. There was a look. Something powerful. After a few days, Heather built up the nerve to ask Amanda out. They were a cute couple. They’d go for walks and talk for hours about anything. Amanda had never felt so comfortable with another person.

One night they were driving by the theology school, not far from where they first met. A labyrinth on campus was lit with candles and covered in rose petals. As they walked the path together, Heather said to Amanda, “Our relationship is like this labyrinth. We’ve grown together through twists and turns. God led us to one another, and we bring each other closer to God.” At the labyrinth’s center, Heather took a knee and pulled out a ring.

A few weeks before the wedding, Amanda participated in a live storytelling show at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. She talked about falling in love with a woman on the shores of Lake Erie, about wanting to change for her parents, about the conversion therapy. She talked about giving it all up and finding Heather. It had taken more than a decade, but there she was, in front of hundreds of strangers, sharing her own redemption story.

“I explored my new self,” she told the audience, her face bright in the spotlight, “and found that faith and homosexuality weren’t mutually exclusive.”

FATHER OF THE BRIDES: Amanda’s dad walked both women down the aisle. Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Heather and Amanda decided to have a church ceremony in Dallas, then a smaller one a week later in Massachusetts, where they could get a marriage license. There are still complications with living in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage—legal and medical issues most married straight couples never think about, and what amounts to a couple hundred dollars extra in taxes—but they were excited to start their new life together. 

The wedding was in the First Community Church in East Dallas. There was organ music, a ceremonial pouring of broken glass, and a team of photographers. Rows of chairs were filled with friends and family. They even invited the family members who think that their love is something to be ashamed of. They wanted to show those people that their love is real. 

Amanda’s brother wasn’t there. But her mom was, smiling. It had taken time, but her mother eventually came around. A few days before the wedding, Amanda took her mother with her to the dress shop, for the final fitting. There was a magazine photographer there, and that night Amanda’s mom boasted about it to her friends on Facebook.

Amanda’s father was at the wedding, too. He looked happy, glad to have Heather as part of the family. He offered to walk both brides down the aisle, one after the other. First he walked Heather, who was wearing a more restrained satin dress. Then he went back to the staging area and walked out with Amanda. As the church organ played, they moved arm in arm toward the altar: the bride, in her big, bright dress with the lacy train, and the father, who was proud to be walking next to his daughter.

Comments