On Sunday morning, a titan in the battle against “ex-gay” conversion therapy, Rev. Jerry Stephenson, passed away at Florida Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. I had visited Jerry only hours before he died. A Christian believer to the end, if a better place exists, no doubt Jerry is there. He’s sitting on top of a cloud excoriating hypocrites and debunking misinformation. Jerry certainly made our world a better place, dedicating his life to helping others and fighting for LGBTQ equality.
Jerry is arguably the unsung father of the “ex-gay” survivor movement. He first spoke out in the media in the early 1990’s. He was a Southern Baptist preacher, who had attended the “ex-gay” ministry Worthy Creations, which was part of now defunct Exodus International.
The experience at Worthy Creations nearly led him to suicide. Fortunately, Jerry recognized that the “ex-gay” movement was a fraud and no one at Worthy Creations had transformed from gay-to-straight. This propelled Jerry on a life-changing journey, where he studied what the Bible really said about homosexuality. He found that fundamentalist Christians had distorted their holy book to justify prejudice against LGBTQ people.
Armed with newfound biblical knowledge and inspired to share the Good News, Jerry was born again as a gay activist with the impressive skillset of being able to out-Bible the right-wing Bible-thumpers. In debates, he was able to recite Bible passages, like Wolfgang Puck can recall recipes. Jerry used his expertise to create seminars on the Bible and Homosexuality. These classes provided relief to those struggling to accept themselves as LGBT and Christian.
I don’t know how many lives he saved over the course of his life, but the number is likely not insignificant. One commenter on our website wrote: “I’ve been a close friend of Jerry for over a decade, and he has been instrumental in helping me emotionally and spiritually in my understanding and acceptance of who I am as a gay man, after I came out at 55 years-old, in 2006…What a blessing Jerry has been in my life.”
Jerry came out of the closet in the Fort Lauderdale newspaper, The Sun Sentinel. A wire service picked up the article and it ricocheted across the globe. Overnight, Jerry was a media sensation, appearing on national television programs. This included the popular Phil Donahue daytime talk show, where millions of Americans saw him debate Colin Cook, the now disgraced founder of Homosexuals Anonymous, who had sex with his clients.
Jerry fought this fight, long before it was profitable or fashionable. In fact, the large LGBTQ organizations didn’t want to touch the “ex-gay” topic, because it intertwined the three issues one was not supposed to discuss at the dinner table: Religion, sex, and politics. Some were concerned taking on the “ex-gay” industry would be seen as anti-religion and create a backlash, at a time our movement was under siege by a resurgent “Family Values” right.
Despite opposition, often from his own community, Jerry forged ahead and fought the good fight. He was a trailblazer and a one-man “ex-gay” survivor movement, long before the term was invented.
I started Sons & Daughters of America in college and moved the organization to Fort Lauderdale after I graduated. Our purpose was to counter right wing propaganda by showing realistic, positive images of LGBTQ people. Jerry attended our first meeting and soon became president of our Board of Directors. He helped us fight the late D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries.
He was indefatigable in his defense of our community. Jerry was ferocious in pursuit of the truth and unsparing in his critique of our opponents. Yet, he was a Happy Warrior, ready with a smile and quick with a joke. While he condemned our foes for their lies and hypocrisy, he never gave up on them. One of his enduring disappointments, was the obstinance of many leaders on the Religious Right.
They knew they were harming LGBTQ people, particularly youth, with their fundamentalist “ex-gay” conversion programs. These money-grubbing preachers saw the abject failure of the “ex-gay” groups they shamelessly promoted. Yet, they persisted in peddling a known lie by claiming these groups were effective. These charlatans peddled the idea of “change” because it brought in dollars. They didn’t care about human beings, or the suffering caused by their lies. Jerry was a truth-teller to the end and was haunted by the willingness of these hucksters to spew fiction, even after he presented them with facts.
Jerry wrote several books, including Out of the Closet and into the Light and Overcoming Obstacles in Life and Coming Out on Top. He wrote for my current organization, Truth Wins Out, until the very end. In thirty years of activism, I have not met a nicer, more gentle, loyal person in the LGBTQ movement. Jerry, was the epitome of a real activist — with every action taken to help people and advance equality. He was a lifelong friend and one of the most decent people I’ve ever met. Rest in Peace, Jerry. You lived, you loved, and you fought for justice. That is a life worth living and celebrating.