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Wednesday 08 October 2008


Review: A Life of Unlearning by Anthony Venn-Brown

Posted in: Books, Features
By Craig Young - 9th November 2007

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A Life of Unlearning, by Anthony Venn-Brown. Auckland: New Holland 2007
Anthony Venn-Brown used to be a Pentecostal highflier across the Tasman. However, he had a secret. Since he was a teenager, Ant has had sex with men. This is his story.

New Zealanders may be unfamiliar with his back-story, unless they read Melbourne's DNA magazine regularly. As an ex-fundamentalist (but not ex-Pentecostal) myself, I found the differences in our experiences to be considerably interesting. Anthony grew up in the conservative fifties, before the rise of mass gay communities at the end of the sixties and during the seventies. Fleeing from tentative gay sexual experiments, he embraced Pentecostal Christianity, feeling resonance within its emotional catharsis. But there was another aspect to it, less beneficent. He tied himself up in knots, as his desire for other men was labelled "demonic," and "exorcism" services were sometimes required to remove the 'spirit of perversion' from peoples lives.

There are some key differences in our personal experiences. In New Zealand, I went to Middleton Grange, the same fundamentalist school in Christchurch that Graham Capill went to (and his dad was one of my teachers). While his generation of young Australians opposed the Vietnam War, my generation protested against the South African Springbok Tour of New Zealand in 1981. Anthony didn't get to go to university, and unfortunately only had his fundamentalist beliefs reinforced due to the pervasiveness of that subculture throughout Sydney.

As with many gay evangelicals, Ant had some painful experiences trying to reconcile his sexuality and religious faith, while trying to support himself as he entered Pentecostal ministry training. He briefly dipped into the early seventies Sydney gay ghetto, but found it a narrow and constricting place. However, the Pentecostal subculture had its own difficulties, such as narrow and constricting gender roles.

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Anthony Venn-Brown
Ant ended up in "Paradise", a controversial Sydney-based Pentecostal community dedicated to psychologically and verbally abusing adherents if they fell from the straight and narrow. When Ant states that those who attended such so-called 'sexual brokenness' groups suffered considerably from the abrasiveness of some of the grossly inadequate counselling, one event stands out. One female incest survivor joined this abusive cult, only to be labelled a "slut" because she'd tried to blot out her ordeal through sex work and drug abuse. That same cult leader harangued Ant after he fell from grace after a harmless photo of himself behaving like a street hustler. She repeated her histrionics in front of his sister and brother-in-law, but fortunately, the sect disintegrated after dissension between Joyce and Edna, its two founders- and Joyce turned out to be a closet lesbian, living with her lover Beryl while running the Paradise cult.

As a result of Joyce's lack of personal integrity and any semblance of professional therapeutic or counselling practice, Ant was then declared persona non grata within Sydney's Pentecostal subculture due to his gayness. Unfortunately, the transience of the "scene" alienated him from gay Sydney, so he left for the rural New South Wales hinterland, got a job as a menswear salesperson, and carried on a heterosexual facade at an Assemblies of God church, before marrying his wife Helen, and fathering two daughters. Unfortunately, rural Pentecostalism turned out to have as many personality clashes as the gay life he'd "left behind" in Sydney.

As the years went on, Ant became more absorbed in Pentecostal networks, staying apart from the blandishments of Sydney-based Fred Nile and avoiding US televangelists. At the same time, he was living a double life, and finally met someone male that he emotionally connected with. Finally, he had to come out to Helen, his ministry and marriage disintegrated, and he left the Assemblies of God. After 1994 though, the Sydney gay community had diversified and matured, and he found love and fulfilment there. Happily too, he reconciled with his now remarried ex-wife and daughters. However, let me say that I have never read a more heartfelt account of the cruelty of facade marriages for closeted lesbians and gay men, not only for the closeted partner, but also their suffering spouse.

Finally, he reached a synthesis. He now identifies as a gay Pentecostal, challenges homophobic biblical interpretations, and argues that they lead parents to reject their lesbian and gay children, produce damaging sham marriages that wound both partners, and emotional trauma. He also denounces 'exgay' charlatanism, and calls for reconciliation of the Pentecostal and gay communities.

Will this happen? Pentecostalism has only been acquainted with right-wing extremism over the last half century, since the Cold War. If I have a minor quibble with this work, it is that (i) Ant doesn't deal with the past political and social diversity of Pentecostalism in greater detail and (ii) he doesn't provide a list of LGBT-supportive Pentecostal churches.

However, this is an outstanding and courageous book.


Craig Young - 9th November 2007