UF College Republicans hosted Christian preacher Derek Paul as the speaker for their first meeting of the semester Sept. 6.
Paul identifies himself as an “ex-gay” who overcame his same-sex attraction through the Christian faith. As a queer woman who was once religious, a lot of emotions and thoughts came up at the prospect of writing about his speech. I was angry, confused and asked myself a lot of questions.
First of all, how is this portrayal of conversion therapy not antiquated? Hasn’t there been enough hatred and criticism toward the LGBTQ+ community? Why is UFCR, which is not officially affiliated with religion, hosting a fundamentalist Christian with seemingly no ties to their mission? The world of politics is beyond me, but what was the intention behind inviting Derek Paul? How could I even approach what he had to say?
I found Paul’s story on the Changed Movement website, where he talks of being born into a pastor’s family and chalks up his same-sex attraction to “some early ongoing harassment from male peers and a gymnastics coach, some intrusive medical exams and less than optimal family dynamics.”
Paul is also the founder and executive pastor of Identify Ministries, an organization centered on the belief that “those who struggle with sexual and relational brokenness and confusion will find the relief, peace, freedom, joy and hope they long for through their personal relationship with Jesus and the people in their lives.”
Reading the Changed Movement stories and fully exploring the Identify Ministries website left me overwhelmed, but more notably: sad.
Paul’s story highlights a web of complex personal struggles and external pressures that are all too familiar to the LGBTQ+ community. My sadness stems from understanding and empathy for all who have felt the need to change because of unaccepting beliefs.
It was especially disheartening to see such deeply personal and sensitive issues intertwined with political affiliations. Going into the meeting, I already created a narrative of who this man was and what he stood for, yet nothing could prepare me for how that would all fall apart.
In his speech, Paul said there needs to be a more comprehensive and diverse conversation about love and humanity — it seemed ironic.
After opening with a prayer, he quickly delved into discussing the values of his church.
“Identify Ministries does not attempt to change a person's sexual preference or make a gay person straight or trans-identified person, not trans … If someone does not accept God's design for humanity, they don't assemble with us,” he said.
Paul didn’t come out as gay to his parents until his dad retired from being a pastor, planning to leave the faith and fully embrace the gay “lifestyle.” Instead, he met his now-wife, Chantel, who told him God could do anything.
After being married to Chantel for five years, Paul’s same-sex attractions were still ongoing and he had plans to once again embrace the gay “lifestyle.” This culminated into a “wake-up call” from God, describing his intention to leave his wife suddenly dissipating regardless if he died happy, he said.
He outwardly admitted to living an unhappy, untrue life. I applaud Derek for being so raw, but I was finding it hard to see how he believed what he was preaching.
Paul shared various facts about sexual orientation, gender identity and how a person is naturally inclined to change sexualities. All statistics came from Neil Whitehead, author of “My Genes Made Me Do It.” Whitehead went into genetics to prove “homosexual orientation is not biologically imprinted or unchangeable.”
There was still ambiguity and a huge lack of clarity in Paul’s lecture. He said he does not aim to change someone’s sexual preference, but his tone and context seem to suggest conversion therapy.
The concluding moments of the presentation were filled with more seemingly agreeable points that would then diverge into their true meaning. When addressing the topic of conversion therapy, Paul only noted the extremist examples: lobotomy, sex therapy and electroshock therapy. He quickly reassures none of those things are happening these days. Well, yeah, it’s the 21st century. Apparently, conversion therapy is now a lifestyle choice?
My thoughts after the meeting were all over the place, but one thing was clear to me: Derek Paul is just a man. Certain ideologies might frame him as a victim, an overcomer, or even a villain; yet, most of my preconceived notions fell through when all I could see was a human being.
In this context, is it fair to hate someone solely because their beliefs differ from my own? Do we risk mirroring the closed-mindedness that frequently impacts the LGBTQ+ community if we don’t educate ourselves and only act off of emotion?
I still do not agree with Paul or support his principles in any way. Sitting through his talk was difficult at times, constantly being berated about how possible it was to change my sexuality, but I wanted to see if there was more than just a black-and-white narrative.
The purpose of Paul’s presentation was not to convert, he was merely a guest speaker for a slightly off-topic club meeting. I may not see eye to eye with Paul or UFCR, but I in no way intend for this to be a smear piece. Paul’s commitment to his beliefs and relationships, as well as his willingness to engage in talks about faith and sexuality, are parts of his character that deserve recognition.
While my initial reactions may have been filled with anger and skepticism, it's important to note people are rarely defined by a single aspect of their identity — whether that be extremist Christians or the queer community. It is crucial to approach these conversations with empathy and a genuine desire to understand different perspectives.
While this talk only offered Paul’s perspective, it is essential to remember that the experiences and stories of the LGBTQ+ community are diverse and deserving of recognition too.
This was a journey of growth. I found myself confronting preconceived notions and wrestling with my own feelings. I was challenged to step out of my comfort zone and engage with perspectives vastly different from my own. Even though I disagree with his approach, I think Derek Paul is living his truth, and no one can strip that from him.
Mia Orris is a UF psychology junior. Follow her on Instagram @miaaorris