A survivor of the 2016 attack on Orlando LGBT nightclub Pulse will speak at an “ex-gay” march in Washington, D.C., promoting the message that“homosexuals can change” through faith in Jesus Christ. The controversial decision to appear raised concerns within the Orlando community about the message being sent to LGBT youth and also about whether organizers of the march are exploiting victims of the notorious attack.
Organizers of the Freedom March, to be held Sunday, announced that Luis Javier Ruiz and other speakers will be “sharing stories of freedom.” Ruiz posted a Facebook message promoting the event, but that post has since been removed.
Ruiz wrote that he “should of been … number 50,” a reference to the 49 who died in the Pulse attack. “Going through old pictures of the night of Pulse a memory were my struggles of perversion, heavy drinking to drown out everything and having promiscuous sex that led to HIV my struggles were real,” the post read, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “The enemy had its grip and now God has taken me from that moment and has given me Christ Jesus I've grown to know his love in a deeper level.”
Another survivor of the Pulse shooting had previously been announced as a speaker but told The Advocate he will not attend.
Jeffrey McCall, an organizer of the march, said the event will not promote the controversial practice of conversion therapy but does provide a forum for formerly gay or transgender people to share their stories of finding a new path through Christ. “Why can’t we share our stories?” he told The Advocate. McCall, who founded For Such a Time Ministry, said he previously lived as a transgender woman and considered surgery before “my life went in a different direction.” Hw adds, “I began the process of talking to God about it and he showed me I was OK how I was born.”
McCall was among the subjects of the documentary Here’s My Heart, about individuals “overcoming same sex attraction” who “surrendered to Jesus.” McCall said Ruiz saw that documentary and connected with him online. That led to McCall conducting Facebook Live interviews with Ruiz.
The decision by Ruiz to participate in the march concerns others close to the crime in Orlando, but many were careful not to criticize the individuals. Christopher Hansen, another survivor of the shooting, said of speakers at the march, “We all have our own journey to lead, and I'm happy for them being who they are. I couldn't pray away my sexual orientation any more than I could pray away my skin color or eye color. I am very proud to be gay, it is who I am, and I couldn't imagine a scenario of how I can pray away who I am. We are all God's children made in his image and God doesn't make mistakes. If you are part of the LGBTQ community, stand proud and stand tall.”
Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, the first out elected official in Florida, said she’s concerned survivors of the Pulse tragedy will be exploited. “I’m concerned that they are being taken advantage of,” she said. “They can follow their own path, but I don’t believe in ex-gay ministries.” Sheehan said she went through such a program in her late teens and early 20s after being kicked out her home by her parents for being lesbian.
In the aftermath of the Pulse tragedy, Sheehan said she’s encouraged religious leaders in Orlando who came to the aid of Pulse survivors to treat them as victims in need and not to push an agenda.
McCall said the message of the march isn’t to promote conversion therapy, a practice he does not believe in. “That’s trying to force people to become someone else, that if you have gay feelings to convert them to straight feelings,” he said. “I still feel same-sex attraction, but I’ve lived a celibate life.” The march has been promoted online as “celebrating freedom from homosexual/transgender lifestyles by the grace and power of Jesus Christ!”
Generally, Sheehan said, such marches as ministries as this deserve only ridicule. “It’s only dangerous in the fact that it may drive people toward ex-gay ministries,” she said. “That was definitely detrimental to my life. But I can’t control what people choose to do.”