Jerry A. Armelli, M.Ed., is director of an ex-gay and AIDS mentoring group called Prodigal Ministries Inc., which he co-founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1986. He and his wife, Mia, were married in 1994. Jerry has made numerous radio and television appearances, sharing his conviction that homosexuality can be overcome.
Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes” is the perfect parable about my early life and gender-identity development. In the fable, a fox tries over and over again to pluck grapes that hang temptingly from a vine overhead. He jumps and he jumps, but he cannot reach them. He finally gives up and says in disgust, “Aw, they’re probably sour grapes anyway. Who wants sour grapes? They’re not worth it.”
That was me exactly, with the male world. To me, the grapes in this story represent male bonding, acceptance and inclusion. They represent the masculine affirmation that I craved desperately but could never seem to obtain. I wanted to be one of the guys, to belong, to have their qualities, their characteristics, their physique. Admiration turned to envy, and I coveted what I perceived they had but I didn’t: masculinity.
When I couldn’t get from them what I pined for, I became angry and resentful. I said, “Aw, they’re stupid boys anyway. They have stupid games. They’re cut off from themselves. All they know is about sports — how shallow. They don’t want, relationships. They’re just a bunch of idiots. I hate them.” The grapes of masculinity, I told myself, were sour anyway. I rejected them even as I craved them. Both feelings, in direct opposition to each other, were intensely strong. Talk about confusing.
You see, homosexuality is not about a problem with the opposite gender. It’s about a problem with the same gender. That’s the first critical thing to understand. Attempts to alter homosexuality in earlier decades often failed because they focused on the wrong thing — a man’s relationship to women. That’s not where initial healing lies.
This love-hate, fear-envy dichotomy went on throughout my developmental years. Males had a very intimidating effect on me. They all seemed to be athletic, with broad athletic builds, which made it easy for them to connect with one another. I was much smaller and had a slighter build. Sports weren’t appealing to me. My personality wasn’t competitive or aggressive. I was friendly and relational. I was a peacemaker. I was social and sensitive to other’s feelings.
I got involved in theater and dance. My father, brothers and peers didn’t know how to relate to that, so again I knew I was different from other boys. I was teased and mocked for different things about me — the way I walked, talked, laughed or for the things I did, like jump rope. I would often receive contemptuous looks from boys that said I was a disgrace. I saw those looks and thought they were telling me, “You’re an embarrassment to all males.” I felt I just didn’t measure up. What I was “made of” was not acceptable to males. I concluded, real males have bigger bodies and do these things (football, wrestling, fight….) and I don’t — something must be wrong with me. But what is it? What’s wrong with me that they don’t like me and I can’t be like them? When they couldn’t accept me, I rejected them in order to protect myself. (“The grapes were sour anyway.”) Psychologists call this defensive detachment — removing the source of hurt in order to protect yourself. If the love source is viewed as hurtful, you’ll say, I’m not going to let you love me any more, and I’m not going to love you. I did this to males in general. I closed them out to protect myself. I said, you’re very hurtful to me. I’m just going to close the door on relationships with all men. They hurt me too much and I hate the inadequacy and fear I feel when I am around you.
Instead of meeting these challenges head-on, and fighting for my place in the circle of men, I tended to avoid whatever activity or challenge caused that feeling of inadequacy, of being different, of being “less than other men.” I would try and avoid activities associated with the masculine realm. In the theater realm, I was comfortable. There were no jocks there and people were sensitive and interested in relationships and affirmed my gifts and talents instead of rejecting them.
The further and further I moved away from males to avoid these feelings of inadequacy and avoid the rejection, the more I gravitated toward females. Girls were safe and non-threatening. They didn’t expect me to be big and aggressive. In fact they liked me to be social and coordinated, to jump rope and play house with them so I could play the father. Being with girls didn’t dredge up all the feelings of inadequacy and fear and intimidation. It was very safe.
The more time I spent with my girl buddies in those critical developmental years, the more I began acting like them. I became increasingly effeminate. That of course only made me more different from boys and caused them to reject me all the more. I was called sissy, fag and queer. As the chasm separating me from them got bigger and bigger, the more I hated them. Now they were hurting me more directly.
I became angrier. No longer trying to fit in, I used this effeminacy to rebel against my adversary — my male peers. I used it as a weapon to mock their masculinity and try to make them feel uncomfortable. I used it to push them further away and try to hurt them, as I perceived they were hurting me.
Later, as an adult, I would see this bitterness celebrated in the gay community — contempt for men, hatred of men, mockery of men. I saw it in exaggerated effeminacy and “campiness,” drag shows and queer parades. Their outrageousness was a way of showing their anger toward conventional society, I believed. They are saying, “I don’t want your masculinity. It stinks. It’s foolish. You rejected me and now I am going to reject you and your masculinity.” Pain this deep can even lead to transvestitism or transexuality (believing you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body). But even in their overt mockery of maleness, so many gay men are still trapped in that love-hate dichotomy, craving a maleness they don’t feel they have and fearing it at the same time.
I can identify with that. Growing up, I felt so different from other males that they actually started to appear to be the opposite gender from me. Men were unknown to me. A mystery. I wondered, who are they? What are they about? I don’t understand them. What do they feel like? This sense of mystery, fascination and wonder is what males typically experience for females especially during adolescence and young adulthood, and females for males, which drives much of their sexual interest in each other. Opposites attract. But I was so disengaged from my male peers that I was experiencing this sense of mystery with them, rather than with girls. This started well before puberty. Once I entered puberty, these feelings would easily turn erotic.
A Place of Acceptance?
At the age of 11, a boy I admired and respected sexually molested me. He was part of the group of boys that I admired and hated. I admired him because he had the physique, he had the sports trophies, he had the status, and he had the male friends that I didn’t have. I really wanted to be friends with him the same way the other boys were friends with each other, but we never had that kind of real relationship.
I came to the conclusion, “Ah! This is the place of acceptance. This is the place I’m adequate, I’m good, I’m loved.” This was pre-puberty for me, and it was powerful. This went on for several years. It wasn’t forced. It was seductive. I got hooked on the behavior. This sexual relationship added to my confusion. Sex with him made me feel less like a normal guy, because I knew normal guys didn’t do this! Yet I felt close to another male for the first time and that felt right. I wanted the sex; we both wanted it. But when we weren’t “doing it,” I pushed it out of my consciousness. I never thought about it. I never saw him and wasn’t friends with him at other times. No one ever knew it was going on. It was our secret. Finally, after several years, I was strong enough to wean myself off of the relationship by making myself unavailable to him.
I have since learned that there is a high correlation between homosexuality and early sexual experience with an older male. I see now that my heart already had a homo-emotional need. This is actually a legitimate need for same-gender bonding and affirmation that all boys experience. It is best demonstrated in that “yucky girls” stage that elementary school boys go through, where girls have cooties and boys are cool. That is a critical developmental period because it establishes the important “us”(boys) and “them”(girls) identity. I missed that stage in my development.
After high school, I joined a dance company and trained to become a professional ballet dancer. Ironically, this was tremendously affirming to my masculinity because of the rigorous physical workout of dance and the clearly defined roles of men and women in the dance. To display masculine strength and male-female dynamics through dance was very empowering and affirming.
“Are You Gay?”
When I was 23, I was in a show and another man in the show was giving me a lot of attention. I found myself becoming excited by it. Then a friend of his came up to me and said, “Jerry, Joe is gay and he likes you. Are you gay?” And I remember a long pause and I remember saying, “I don’t know.”
I don’t know! For the first time I let the idea come out of my unconscious that I might be homosexual. Believe it or not, in all my confusion and throughout my long adolescent sexual relationship with another guy, I never consciously labeled myself as homosexual. I knew I was different, but I hadn’t labeled myself “gay.” Now, asked point blank, I didn’t have an answer.
Immediately, I set out on two quests. The first was to find out if I was really homosexual, or just going through a phase. I thought, first of all, I’d better find out what’s going on within me, before I do something that I’m going to regret for the rest of my life. I found a psychologist, a Jewish woman, and I just talked. I was basically coming out to myself. I would talk, and in that whole process, the conclusion seemed to be obvious: “I’m homosexual.” She didn’t pronounce me a homosexual. I came to that conclusion myself as I told another person for the first time in my life about my long sexual relationship with this older guy and my feelings about it.
I resigned myself that I wasn’t just confused but I really was a homosexual. It was very grievous, to think that I would never marry or have children.
Having labeled myself as homosexual, I set about on my second quest, which was to find out what God wanted me to do about it. I said, “God, if you say it’s OK to go into the “gay”, I will. If not, I won’t.” Simple as that. Black or white.
I had been raised Roman Catholic. I went to Catholic schools and a Catholic college. My parents raised me with excellent morals and values that I had internalized and that were important to me. I had to know that the life path I would choose was acceptable to God.
I came out to one of my friends who was gay, and he took me to my first gay bar and my first gay party. It was scary but exciting. I started dating men. I visited gay organizations and participated in their activities, all the while continuing my quest to find out what God wanted me to do with my homosexuality. I was on a spiritual quest as much as a sexual, emotional or social one. Any questions I had in my mind, I wanted to face them, right then and there, before I got sexually involved with anyone.
I would ask “gay” men and women: “Our bodies, they don’t really go together. What do you think about that?” They didn’t want to talk about it. “What about the Bible? It talks about a husband and wife but nowhere does it talk about a husband and a husband.” They didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t understand this double standard of morality that said chastity and monogamy were okay for heterosexuals but promiscuity was okay for homosexuals. And that’s what I saw in the gay world: a lot of promiscuity. They would talk about love and monogamy and loyalty, but it wasn’t happening at all from what I saw.
In “gay” circles, I saw a lot of backbiting, a lot of gossip and a lot of bitterness. I saw men acting like women, and women acting like men, and even though I was effeminate it still did not look right for men and women to act that way. I saw a lot of lying, deceit and denial. I saw personality disorders and communication disorders. They acted like it wasn’t happening, like everything was great and they were healthier and happier because they were “gay.”
I would say to myself, “So many things are wrong here. Could it really be okay with God?” These things were glaring things to me. I felt like when I went in, I was handed this pretty little present in a box that said, everything is taken care of for you. You just talk this way. You just do these things. You go to these places. You sleep with these men. I was rather bold, because I wouldn’t accept the package the gay community offered me. I thought, “If this is so right, if you believe this is so true, if this is so valid, then why can’t we discuss this honestly and thoroughly?”
To my advantage, I didn’t deny these things. And I appreciated my parents for the morals and values they instilled in me. I didn’t sleep with anybody through this whole process – which made me an oddity even in the gay community. In fact, I was told by a “gay,” man, “Quit coming around here if you’re not going to ‘put-out.'” Despite the years of the closeted sexual relationship I had in my adolescence, I had decided I was not going to sleep with another guy until we were in love, or we made a permanent commitment to each other, like a marriage. They just couldn’t understand it.
I think because I was celibate through this time, my sexual desires didn’t get tangled up with my spiritual quest and confuse my heart and mind. I was able to see the “gay” subculture more clearly for what it really was. And I didn’t like what I saw.
Next I sought answers from Dignity, the pro-gay Catholic group that affirms men and women in being gay. But I found Dignity’s message was not about purity, nor about celibacy, nor about faith, nor about relationship with God. It wasn’t even about Catholicism. It just seemed like a “gay” bar, only without the alcohol to me. It was terrible. I felt worse after going there than I did at the “gay” bar.
Seeking answers from other people was equally confusing. Some straight people were telling me, “It’s okay to ‘go gay.’ It’s no big thing.” Other people were saying, “It’s wrong, I don’t understand it but it’s wrong.” As for religious people, likewise, some were saying it’s okay, some were saying it’s not. Psychologists were saying it’s okay, just be true to yourself. And of course, “gays” were telling me it’s okay. But something within me was telling me it was not good and I still hadn’t found my answer from God.
I fell into a deep depression. I thought, “I’m homosexual and is going ‘gay’ all there is? I don’t want that kind of a life! It’s not for me. There’s no life in it.” I wanted to reverse time — like I had never “come-out,” but I couldn’t. It was out now and I could never go back into the closet. I felt hopeless. I thought no matter what I do, I’ll never be happy. And then the thoughts started coming into my head: “Just take your life. If you go back inside yourself, you’re going to be unhappy or if you go ‘gay,’ you’ll never be happy. Just take your life.”
Turning Point: “You Are Home”
I remember standing in the shower one time, heavy with depression. I felt myself starting to collapse. I thought I was about to have a psychotic breakdown. But all of a sudden I felt these large, supernatural spiritual hands behind my back lifting me back up on my feet. I felt a surge of strength that whispered, “Keep going.” I recognized immediately that it was the Lord intervening, giving me his strength to lean on when I couldn’t do it by myself any longer.
So I hung on and continued my search. I talked with the chaplain at my former high school, and he invited me to a charismatic Catholic prayer group. I said, “Yes, I’ll try anything.” When I walked past the foyer of the church and entered the doors of the main sanctuary, I felt a little voice speaking as if from inside of me that said, “You’re home. The war is over, and you’re finally home.” It was like nails that had been sticking in my back, holding me down for so long, had suddenly been released as I stepped foot into the sanctuary.
It was in that group that I met Jesus as a real living, active, involved person. Over the next few weeks, I recognized Jesus my savior. I didn’t invite him into my life to save me from homosexuality specifically; rather, I knew that I was a sinner and that I needed Him to atone for my sins and I wanted His strength, guidance and love with me always. I gradually made him the Lord of my life — and my life began to turn-around. I decided to follow the principles and the directives of the Bible, which are so therapeutic.
The love in that prayer circle was tangible. During one particularly powerful prayer, I heard the words, from inside of me, speak softly but with conviction: “Homosexuality is wrong, Jerry. To act on it is wrong. The behavior is wrong, and the condition is not what I have for you. Follow me, Jerry, in a close relationship, and I will change your life.” And I said, “Lord I will make you shepherd of my life. You are the first man I have ever trusted enough not to hurt me. So I’m going to let you love me.”
What tremendous healing that brought my wounded heart. Finally, I invited a masculine love source into my heart, and it was the true masculine, the divine masculine, not the broken machismo of a broken generation. Finally I had a true man to model myself after and one to affirm me in my unique masculinity.
With my heart opened to masculine love and a new sense of courage in facing relationship with those I once saw as my adversaries — other males — I learned to forgive. I came to forgive those who I felt had sinned against me and to be forgiven for those I sinned against through my contempt and bitterness. I committed myself to be obedient to God, no matter what my feelings said. My new faith taught me to get outside of myself and build healthy relationships with men, women, and family.
I pursued my dreams and goals and stopped focusing all of my life on this one aspect of my life, my sexuality. I found tremendous healing. My thoughts and feelings about myself and my identity started to change.
At one point, I pondered the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the fact that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own son, out of obedience. I realized I should be willing to go that far, to sacrifice my sexuality and romantic relationships, if God asked it. The thought of never loving someone, neither a man nor a woman, as fully as I desired hurt me deeply. I wept. But I determined to do as Abraham did and sacrifice my greatest desire. And as He did with Abraham, God intervened and honored my willingness to sacrifice. He knew the intents of my heart. And in response, he filled my life with joy. Replacing my years of turmoil and grief and sorrow, he brought joy into my life and into my heart.
The joy I felt in my relationship with Jesus became a platform to then say, “You know, if he loves me and accepts me, then I have no reason to be afraid of another man, or feel intimidated by men.” So I could begin to take risks and be in relationship with other men. Finally, I could let other men into my heart. Before, I had kept them out because they were hurtful, but I began to say, “They can’t hurt me because my relationship with Jesus has taken the power away from them. They don’t hold the keys to my life. I don’t need them to approve of me for me to be okay.”
Accepting Myself as a Man
One difficult hurdle in this regard was overcoming my craving for admiration and acceptance from men, particularly my brothers. When I was accepted into my first professional ballet company and got the lead, I thought to myself, “Finally my brothers will see how accomplished and athletic I am as a dancer. Sure, I don’t have the sports trophies that they have, but what I have accomplished is better. I am a professional dancer — a professional athlete. They will tell me how great I am just like they were told about their accomplishments.”
But my brothers didn’t respond the way I wanted them to respond, and I was heartbroken. I was hurt and angry. But as I prayed, a peace came over me as I realized, “Jerry, you want your brothers’ approval but you don’t need it. Christ has given you all the approval you need.”
From that day on, I learned I could move among men feeling as capable and as adequate as them, unique yet equal too! I began to discover, “I really am like them, and they really are like me.” My sense of alienation from men began to fall away. I stopped seeing the grapes as sour or out of reach. I was becoming free.
Soon I met some new Christian friends who discipled me. One in particular, a married man named Michael who was also a dancer, took me under his wing as a man to a man. He loved me unconditionally. He mentored me as a man and as a Christian. I began to feel my needs for healthy male companionship and identity being met. Despite all the baggage of my history, despite my dependency and lingering effeminacy, he stayed in a healthy relationship with me. I found myself growing in manhood and masculinity.
During that time I was baptized in another Christian faith where I felt more at home and where I could feel more encouraged to grow further into heterosexuality. When I got up to up to be baptized, I stood at the microphone and said boldly, “Satan tried to lie me into homosexuality, but I called upon Jesus and he saved me,” the people rose up in a standing ovation and applauded. It was tremendously powerful. The word was coming out. I was not hiding any more. I was not ashamed of my past, and I wanted to share the message that no one need be. There is no shame in coming out of homosexuality — it should be cheered!
Those five years were blissfully healing. Michael helped me understand, and the Spirit confirmed, that I was to reflect the unique masculinity that God created me to express, a facet of masculinity that God had uniquely given to me. I wasn’t to pursue anyone else’s or covet anyone else’s masculinity and no one could shame mine because God had given it to me to reflect him.
Later, I moved in with two roommates who knew my past, but it wasn’t an issue to them — I was just one of the guys! Finally, I was in a place emotionally where I could relate to them as a man equal to them.
Sharing the Joy
As I shared my story with others, someone said to me, have you met Bob? Have you met Joseph? They came out of homosexuality too. I said, oh my gosh, there are others who came out of homosexuality? Soon we met and shared our stories. We felt God wants us to do more with our experience. We knew that there were and are hundreds and thousands of men and women out there who believe there is no hope for change, who are going down a road to death, who are living hopelessly depressed lives. What did God want us to do about it?
The answer came: Open a phone line and start a support group. We did that in 1986, and it later became a part of Exodus International – North America. I obtained my bachelors degree. I went on to graduate school and got my master’s in counseling. I was then hired at a local professional counseling agency, where I was mentored and felt very affirmed by the director. I later moved on to work full time at Prodigal Ministries.
At Prodigal Ministries, I made a new friend, a musician who invited me to choreograph and dance in a piece he was writing called “The Atonement.” I was honored to do so. My dance partner would be his sister, Mia, who was also a professional dancer.
I soon found myself interested in Mia in ways I never had been interested in a woman before. We started dating, but she warned me that she was not interested in a relationship because she had just come out of a five-year relationship with a man that had ended badly. That was fine with me. I was more than happy to take it real slow and become friends first, then cautiously explore romance with her later. Two years after our first date, I asked her to marry me. We were married six months later. Today we have a beautiful daughter together.
I am at the point in my life now where homosexuality is no longer a struggle. I’d have to go through a lot of barricades — psychologically, spiritually and emotionally — to get to the point of acting on any temptation. I am very fulfilled in my life. I no longer want homosexuality in my life. I no longer need it. Today, I identify with other heterosexual men as my peers, my brothers and my equals. I am in love with my wife. I love being a husband and a daddy. And most of all, I love my Heavenly Father who reached out and showed this prodigal son the way home, and then welcomed him with open arms.
—Jerry Armelli, 2000