CHARLOTTE (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — The LGBTQ community is no stranger to the phrase “pray away the gay,” veiled way of talking about the idea of conversion therapy.

It’s the notion that someone’s sexuality or gender identity can be changed through therapy, religious counseling, or other practices that are downright abusive.

North Carolina State Senator from Mecklenburg County, Natasha Marcus, is actively working to end the practice in the Tar Heel State.

“It’s the wild, wild west out there for what you might be subjected to,” said Sen. Marcus, “I like to put ‘conversion therapy’ in air quotes, because it’s not therapy and it’s not going to convert anyone.”

In March 2021, Sen. Marcus introduced the Mental Health Protection Act in the general assembly, which would in part prevent licensed therapists from performing conversion therapy on minors and adults with disabilities. Their licenses would be suspended if they choose to continue.

Senator Marcus said, “It’s sometimes shock therapy or sleep deprivation, shaming techniques, hypnosis sometimes to try to get people to change their sexual orientation or gender expression.”

In 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order that keeps state funding from being used to pay for conversion therapy for minors, but that’s where protections stop.

“Several states have laws on the books already to protect youth in their state from this horrible practice, North Carolina needs to step up and do the same,” Sen. Marcus told Queen City News.

The practice has been discredited by the American Medical Association and American Psychological Association, but if this latest measure were to pass, it wouldn’t restrict religious groups from counseling their members about their sexual identity.

“There are so many people that want to explore faith, but also don’t want to be bashed for who they are and how we believe God make them,” explained Rev. Tara Gibbs, the Minister of Youth and College Students at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte.

Some churches are more accepting than others and it’s in the shadows of the latter that conversion therapy often happens.

Rev. Gibbs said she’s heard varying accounts from others about who had been counseled by prominent figures in their church growing up as an LGBTQ youth.

She said, “From those who said, ‘I went to that first meeting and knew this wasn’t right and left’ to others, who said ‘I stayed, I did talk to them. They said they loved me, but I needed to keep praying that this was my personal demon that I would have to wrestle with for the rest of my life.’”

As a leading figure at Myers Park Baptist, Rev. Gibbs constantly welcomes and meets with new people whose former churches didn’t truly open their arms to everyone.

“Once it became public that this person was gay, then their church cut them. They were no longer an employee, they were no longer a part of their community and that’s a hurt that we have to deal with here,” she explained.

Growing up questioning her own sexuality while being a faithful member of the church, Rev. Gibbs knows she was lucky to have an accepting group around her but knows others who’ve gone through the trauma of having their community ripped away.

She said, “They start to wonder ‘Am I lovable? Does God love me? Can I be Christian or religious and identify as LGBTQ plus?’”

According to a study from The Trevor Project published in the 2018 American Journal of Public Health, LGBTQ youth who underwent conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide and 2.5 times as likely to report multiple attempts.

Se. Marcus said, “We need to protect kids, not tell them that there’s something fundamentally wrong with them to the point where they feel like ending their life is a better option.”

Rev. Gibbs has heard those stories too.

“Hearing people, how they cried nightly as young people, or even as adults wanting God or the divine to take away their sexuality and, in some cases, unfortunately, to take their life if that’s what it meant.”

So where could the idea of homosexuality being a sin come from in a biblical sense?

Rev. Gibbs explained at least one potential line of thinking for this, saying “Depending on which translation, which is an interpretation someone may find, a writing from Paul that says homosexuality is, the term that’s used in the King James version, is an “abomination.” But again, without that further step, that nuance of reading into the original writings, people are reading what someone else translated centuries ago, assuming that it is literal.”

Rev. Gibbs is quick to point out that lines tend to get drawn over interpretations of scripture, not the words themselves.

“A lot of times the homophobia and bigotry we see in churches is not anywhere in scripture. It’s not the teachings of Jesus. It’s the unfortunate and ignorant teachings of some leaders who have perpetuated this cycle of their own homophobia and bigotry to the point that it’s literally traumatizing and causing suffering to parishioners.”

While some groups work to make their circle tighter, Myers Park Baptist is trying to make theirs bigger, signaling an inclusive environment from their colorful logo to their highest levels of leadership.

“There is someone who looks like you. There’s someone from your same background. I’m a Black woman who’s bisexual,” said Rev. Gibbs, “We’ve had deacons who identified as open LGBTQ persons. We’ve had the chair of our deacons identify as LGBTQ plus.”

It’s the churches simple but impactful way, without laws and red tape, to protect and uplift the LGBTQ community, when some won’t.

“Yes, you can be Christian, and you can be gay. Yes, you can be Christian, and you can be queer,” Rev. Gibbs said, “You don’t have to pick one or the other. You can live, you can thrive, be who you are, be who God made you, and be in the community with people who love support and affirm you. “