Gainesville’s religious community found itself at odds Friday night.
The Rev. Larry Green, of Westminster Presbyterian Church, bowed his head in prayer as he knelt in front of Ignite Life Center, a non-denominational church at 404 NW 14th Ave.
He prayed next to a dozen fellow protesters with signs that read, “Being gay is not a lifestyle.”
Meanwhile, Ignite Life members mingled inside as they waited for the “Unbound” conference to begin.
The two-day conference, which ended Saturday, was held to educate church members on how to minister the LGBTQ+ community, said Nicole Gomez, an associate pastor and church spokesperson.
While conference attendees listened to testimonials of Ignite Life members who said they no longer identified with the LGBTQ+ community because of a relationship they formed with the Lord, protestors outside the venue called it conversion therapy.
“We believe that a personal relationship with Jesus is really what causes anybody to be awakened or transformed,” Gomez said.
However, about 60 protesters who marched during the Free2BU March on Gainesville said otherwise. They accused the church of conversion therapy, which is the practice of counseling with the goal of changing someone’s sexual orientation.
The group walked down the street toward Ignite Life Center and circled the building twice, chanting “I am gay and that’s okay, hate will never keep us safe.”
Green said the conference promotes a false acceptance of LGBTQ+ people into the church to ultimately convert them to heterosexuality.
“It’s still conversion therapy, it’s still deliverance,” Green said. “It’s the false hope, and that’s the damaging part of it.”
As a marriage and family therapist, Green said he witnesses clients experience rejection, depression, anxiety, addiction and suicidal thoughts as a result of conversion therapy.
Gainesville became the first city in North Florida to ban conversion therapy for minors in April.
Merchandise inside Ignite Life Center included a book called “Changed: #OnceGay Stories,” featuring people who left behind their LGBTQ+ identities. Their testimonials refer to their homosexual lives as sinful, claiming they found salvation in Jesus Christ.
The event also featured formerly LGBTQ+ speakers who shared stories of their own transformations, Gomez said. About 250 people attended the conference.
Gomez denies that Ignite Life Center uses any form of conversion therapy on members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I understand some of the concerns are surrounding conversion therapy, but that’s something we don’t practice, don’t believe in and we actually shun ourselves,” she said. “We don’t agree with people having to change to accept God’s love.”
Jose Vega, 36, said he came to the protest to speak on his experience of surviving conversion therapy.
In 1999, Vega moved to Gainesville to attend UF. He said he confided in a pastor about his sexuality who paired him with an unlicensed practitioner.
After five and a half years of verbal conversion therapy, Vega fell in love with a woman he later married, he said. They had two kids together.
“I believed it,” Vega said. “I was a teenager, vulnerable, and you don’t really understand what the truth is, so I wholeheartedly believed in what they said.”
Years later, Vega said he began to question his sexuality, which led him down a path of depression, self-hatred and suicidal thoughts. His children were his motivation to seek help.
He said he found a licensed practitioner who helped him realize there was nothing to fix in the first place.
“God made me perfect. God made me beautiful,” Vega said. “I am good enough.”
Contact Marlowe Starling at email@example.com
Gainesville Free2BU protesters carry hand-made signs Friday evening as they march towards the Ignite Life Center, whose members they say use conversion therapy on the LGBTQ+ community